Exploring the potential of information technologies for the nuclear industry

Professor Jin Jiang, Western University

It should come as no surprise that the considerable capital investments and operating risks associated with atomic energy make the people who design and operate nuclear reactors very conservative about the way they manage these complex facilities. Due to strict, complicated, and expensive regulation processes, as well as the long service life of nuclear power plants, many instrumentation and control systems in existing nuclear power plants are lagging behind similar systems used in non-nuclear facilities, most notably, in how information technologies are being applied.

Western University engineering Professor Jin Jiang appreciates the robustness of these legacy systems in the test of time, but he wants to explore the additional flexibilities and opportunities that new information and communication technologies can offer to improve the reliability of these legacy instrumentation and control systems, and hence enhance the safety of the plants in general.

Jiang is familiar with the unique needs of nuclear power plants. He is an Industrial Research Chair in Control, Instrumentation and Electrical Systems in Nuclear Power Plants, jointly supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the University Network of Excellence in Nuclear Engineering (UNENE), and he works closely with both the Canadian nuclear industry and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“Designers and engineers of nuclear power plants like to use proven technologies, but newly developed wireless sensor network technologies can bring some clear advantages,” he explains.

More specifically, he has been investigating several of the most widely adopted industrial wireless technologies for potential applications in nuclear power plants. A project with CMC Microsystems enabled Prof. Jiang to collaborate with Texas-based AwiaTech on developing and evaluating novel systems based on a wireless sensor technology, Highway Addressable Transducer Protocol (WirelessHART). This technology is based on the widely used HART communication protocol, an application layer has been in use since the late 1980s.

Assisted by Dr. Peng Hu, an embedded software engineer with CMC, Jiang worked with AwiaTech to modify the source code of their specialized WirelessHART products to install the sensor nodes on to an instrumentation and control system testbed located in his state-of-the-art nuclear research and simulation lab at Western. The main objective was to evaluate the suitability of WirelessHART-based wireless systems in a nuclear power plant environment.

“We developed a testbed for industrial applications using the embedded platform as well as software,” says Dr. Hu. “Even though this project uses a nuclear power plant as the background application, the developed technology and systems can be expanded to other industries as well.”

This work was made possible through CMC Solutions, an innovative R&D collaboration initiative introduced by CMC Microsystems in 2013. The program pairs academic and industrial partners with in-kind services and cost-sharing in targeted theme areas to develop feasible R&D products that might not otherwise be possible. This project, conducted under the theme of Hardware-Software Co-Design on Embedded Platforms, resulted in an innovation that has built a foundation for much more efficient real-time information acquisition from different instruments in a nuclear power plant, without physical disruption to existing systems.

Recently Jiang and his colleagues co-authored papers published in the AECL Nuclear Review and the leading journals from the American Nuclear Society, outlining some of the results of these field tests. Their findings demonstrated that these wireless devices were sufficiently robust to withstand the harsh environment presented in a nuclear power plant, such as atmospheric ionization caused by radiation. As well, the signals generated by the wireless sensor nodes did not cause any adverse effects to the existing instrumentation in the plant.

According to Jiang, WirelessHART devices provide good backward compatibility, making it possible to retrofit them onto much older instruments using standard interface protocols. This has also been investigated on the testbed. Critical variables, such as water levels in the reactor, can be simulated on the testbed and the data can be acquired and transferred by wireless devices to receivers. “It’s a real-time operation,” observes Jiang.

CMC’s assistance was key to the project, Jiang says. “We would not have been able to accomplish what we did if we had worked on this project on our own.” Their project management skills, the software expertise of Dr. Hu, the loan of expensive measurement instruments, and their negotiating skills with equipment suppliers kept the project moving smoothly, he says.

Knowledge-sharing was another value-add, he says. "Through the National Design Network, CMC has effectively disseminated the outcomes of this project through webinars, the publication of application notes, and, potentially, short courses. As a direct result, researchers from other institutions have reached out to Western for potential collaborations.”

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