With reactor gone, Halden project lives on in human factors research

October 5, 2023, 9:30AMNuclear NewsPaul Menser

When Norway’s Halden research reactor shut down in 2018, nuclear researchers around the world were forced to scramble. For 60 years, the Halden Reactor Project offered a 25-MWt boiling water reactor for research where scientists could expand their understanding of nuclear fuel reliability, reactor internals, plant procedures and monitoring, and human factors.

Nineteen countries participated in the Halden project, with the Paris-based OECD Nuclear Energy Agency providing oversight. Funding came from participating countries, with host country Norway covering about 30 percent of the cost through its Institute for Energy Technology (IFE). When the reactor closed in 2018 due to technical issues, the IFE said it needed extraordinary funding from the Norwegian government to keep Halden going beyond the 2020 expiration of its license. On its own, it could not manage the financial risk of operating the reactor, the IFE said. Norway said “no” to the extra funding—but that wasn’t the end of the Halden story.

Human factors: Today, although the reactor is shut down, Halden’s human factors element survived and has taken center stage. On May 9–10, representatives of the 19 member countries composing the Halden Human Technology Organisation (HTO) Project met at Idaho National Laboratory to discuss topics such as operator performance in highly automated plants, spatial computing and augmented reality for hazard mapping and visualization, and condition-based maintenance using digital twins.

“The work we’re doing now is very much in the control room,” said INL’s Bruce Hallbert, chair of the Halden HTO Programme Review Group. Each year, the Halden HTO Project board meets at the chair’s home organization, which is why INL hosted the 2023 meeting.

That group also operates under supervision of the OECD NEA. Participating nations include China, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Germany, and South Korea. The United States is represented by the Department of Energy’s INL-based Light Water Reactor Sustainability (LWRS) program, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Electric Power Research Institute.

Some history: While the Halden reactor was still operating, the research focus was roughly 60 percent on fuels and hardware and 40 percent on human factors, according to Andreas Bye, IFE chief scientist and Halden HTO Project program manager. The human factors work dates back to 1967, when the first computerized supervision system for the Halden reactor was initiated. In 1983, the first Halden Man-Machine Laboratory was set up with a simulator to provide a test bed for studying operators and their interactions with controls. It incorporated a pressurized water reactor simulator, modifiable operator interface, and an extensive automated system for recording and analyzing experimental data.

In 2013, the LWRS program reached out to Halden to adapt its control room design concepts to modernization efforts at U.S. nuclear plants. To provide a domestic counterpart to Halden’s control room simulator capabilities, the DOE set up the Human Systems Simulations Laboratory at INL, a full-scale digital simulator that allows for the study of industry-provided instrumentation and control systems from many nuclear power plants.

Challenges: With new technology emerging in the form of advanced and small modular reactors, there are many new human factors challenges to address, Bye said. Artificial intelligence and cybersecurity threats are creating new issues. People in nuclear power plants are going to need new tools to address cyberattacks. Although plants are becoming more passive and automated, “humans are always going to be involved at some point,” he said. “How to involve people with AI is very important.”

All of this is happening at a time of renewed interest in nuclear energy. Even Norway, which began curtailing its efforts in the 1970s after large offshore oil deposits were discovered in the North Sea, is now looking at SMRs, Bye said.

In addition to administrative concerns, the agenda for the meeting at INL set aside time for “hot potato,” in which each review group member could speak for five minutes on the most pressing issues in their country or organization. These included licensing and regulatory concerns, plant siting, water utilization, and the balancing electrical generation with energy production for industrial users.

Going digital: The pace of progress in the nuclear industry is speeding up, said Ron Boring, manager of INL’s Human Factors and Reliability Department. Although there are plenty of legacy reactor control rooms that must be upgraded from analog to digital, there are also control rooms with digital technology from 20 years ago that need updating. “We’re looking at new reactors and new control system technologies,” Boring said.

Data are essential to better systems and procedures. With their inputs from reactors around the world, each one is home to various technologies both new and old, groups like the Halden HTO Programme Review Group provide a great service to the nuclear industry, regulators, and universities. “We can’t do it all ourselves,” Boring said.

To learn more about the Halden Reactor Project, the Halden HTO Project and the LWRS, follow these links:

Paul Menser is a communications specialist at Idaho National Laboratory.

Battelle Energy Alliance manages INL for the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy. INL is the nation’s center for nuclear energy research and development, and also performs research in each of the DOE’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security, science and the environment. For more information, visit inl.gov. Follow us on social media: X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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