VR control rooms: Redefining nuclear control room training

Some people think we live in a simulation. AV technology could turn that theory into something of a reality in the changing world of control rooms says Reece Webb.

The Loviisa nuclear power plant in Finland is installing its own virtual control room on site at the plant, using virtual reality technology to train its operators in situations which previously were impossible to practise for.

The nuclear industry joins a growing list of adoptees of virtual reality for training purposes, with emergency service providers, medical professionals and universities branching out to the emerging technology to train employees in ways which were previously impossible.

At Loviisa Nuclear Power Plant in Finland, the Finnish energy company Fortum is installing its own dedicated virtual reality control room with VR headset manufacturer Varjo’s VR1 headset as the centrepiece of the training experience. The VR1 is a “human eye resolution” headset with integrated eye tracker technology that has seen use with leading auto manufacturers including Audi and Volvo for design and testing applications.

Joakim Bergroth, a human factor engineering expert at Fortum is overseeing the implementation of the world’s first interactive virtual control room at Loviisa.

Bergroth has 
over 10 years’ experience in the nuclear industry with Fortum,focused on developing and thinking of new use cases and integrating different technologies to improve the lives of plant operators.

In the nuclear industry, pre-testing forms a central pillar of the safe production of nuclear energy as Bergroth explained: “When something is changing in the control room, you need to validate it before you can install it on site and take it into production use.

Usually, this 
validation is done very late in refurbishment projects because plans and designs first need to be approved and only after that they can be installed on the physical simulator for validations.
“Very often, you do find some design errors or something that needs to be improved in the validations on the physical simulator. This means that you have to do a redesign, approve it, and do installations again on the physical simulator. We can now get rid of that problem by quickly identifying errors in the VR simulation which gives us plenty of time to fix the errors and improve the design before we even install anything on the physical simulator.”

Bergroth has been experimenting with the implementation of VR environments for control room and field operator training for more than five years, initially using Oculus Rift headsets with high-spec desktop PC’s to run VR environments.

Nowadays,businesses can invest in high-spec gaming laptops to run detailed VR environments, making VR systems more attractive in commercial spaces as they are cheaper and easier to use. Bergroth explained: “At the minimum, all you need is a gaming laptop and VR headset and you’re ready to go. Running virtual machines that simulate the power plant process simultaneously on the gaming laptop where the VR environment is run, is also not a problem anymore. 

“One compromise we had to make with older hardware was the resolution that the operators experienced through the headsets. They needed to lean forward if they wanted to see the smallest digits on the display screens clearly or when they picked up a procedure,they needed to set it unnaturally close to their face to be able to read something. Now this Varjo headset has human eye resolution so we don‘t need to compromise on resolution anymore.”
"You can do everything you can do in real life in a very realistic way,similar to today’s video games,because the VR environments are built on top of a game engine" - Joakim Bergroth, Fortum
The virtual reality control room allows operators and engineers to implement new test designs and procedures on the fly without the hassle of physical instalments,eliminating the need to reserve a physical control room simulator and crews which can be a resource heavy process.

This can be seen as a wider trend across high risk training applications around the world such as fire forensics and surgery instructors who are turning to virtual training applications due to the high cost and intense resource consumption of physical simulation.

Bergroth: “Typically, nuclear power plants do not have anything else as a physical simulator except for the main control room. In VR they can make realistic emergency control rooms, auxiliary control rooms, accident management control rooms or even local control posts and other areas relevant to the field operator training. Most of these are really concrete things that we haven’t been able to do before because there haven’t been any facilities for this kind of training. 

“We can not only simulate the power plant process, but also fire smoke and earthquakes; you can do everything that you can do in real life in a very realistic way,similar to today’s video games,because the VR environments 

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