Do you have what it takes to run a nuclear reactor?

Cristina Mazza


Red warning lights are lighting up the control panel.

You find it difficult to decipher warnings being flashed on the screens.

Alarms are going off.

You are told that a plane has just crashed into a transmission tower not too far away, with the potential of creating havoc on the electrical grid, and you have less than a minute until the real damage could begin.

Luckily, this isn’t a real emergency, but rather my first experience seeing a nuclear power plant simulatior in action.

With great (nuclear) power comes great responsibility. Can you imagine being responsible for providing electricity to millions of Ontarians? It's certainly not a simple job, so it’s no wonder that great measures go into the training of experts running nuclear power plants.

Nuclear simulation provides a variety of employees in the nuclear industry with an interactive learning experience in handling the day-to-day operations of managing a sizable portion of Ontario’s electricity generation, as about 60 per cent of electricity in Ontario is produced by eight nuclear reactor units at Bruce Power and 14 by Ontario Power Generation (six at the Pickering plant and four at the Darlington plant).

Three years ago I had the chance to visit the simulators at the Pickering plant, where operators are trained in a replication of a control room. This year, I traveled the long distance of a whole 10 metres down the hall from my favourite study room to visit an entirely new type of nuclear simulation lab, right here at Ontario Tech! Ontario Tech has two Nuclear Simulation labs, one in the Engineering Building and the other in the Energy Resource Centre (ERC). I took a tour of the lab in the ERC.

Three years later, another nuclear simulator to play around with. Notice any similarities?


Like the Environmental Effects of Radiation Lab, the Nuclear Simulation Lab was designed to meet the needs of the industry, as well as being designed with much contribution from the industry for teaching Ontario Tech students. The Nuclear Simulation Lab has been used primarily by the Advanced Operations Overview for Managers (AOOM) course for senior management at Ontario Power Generation over the last several years. This course, taught by former OPG shift managers, teaches integrated plant operations to help senior management better manage their employees, with procedures taught directly from OPG.

Don’t be confused by the word “overview” in the course name, as this is an intensive five-month course where managers are trained to provide management for virtually every aspect of a nuclear power plant, an incredibly complex system. The binder containing just flow charts alone was bigger than my stack of textbooks for the year!

Nuclear plant operations involves knowing how every component of a nuclear reactor interacts with the system as a whole. For example, while a mechanical engineer might know how to solve a problem with a pump, he or she must take into consideration the impact his or her decisions might have not only on the pump, but also on any aspect of the entire nuclear power plant.

The Nuclear Simulation Lab is used to teach this, and how to apply it to problem solving, plant maintenance, risk analysis, implementation of layers of safety measures and so much more. The effect of any action on the system can be observed in real time using the simulation, giving the user the experience of being at a real nuclear power plant. The “graphical user interface” or GUI of the simulator makes this experience possible, as it is very easy to use the touch panel simulators. The easy-to-use GUI is so much of a valuable aspect of the simulator that one nuclear engineering capstone project is to design an updated GUI for a Generic CANDU 9 Simulator so that Ontario Tech engineering graduates will have an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding for how simulators are used and how they work.


While the simulators in Pickering were designed to perfectly replicate a control room, the simulators at Ontario Tech consist of display screens that users can interact with in the same way they would with devices in a control room. The Ontario Tech simulators run on the same software as the simulators in Pickering, developed by OPG. The great thing about this setup is the flexibility it offers, and the displays can be changed to represent either the Darlington or Pickering plant, or even a different Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactor.

The simulator offers the program for the training of Authorized Nuclear Operations, and so much more. To help those in the AOOM program as well as Ontario Tech students learn the physical processes and technical principles required for safely operating a nuclear power plant, the configuration of the simulator can be changed to meet the needs of the user. In addition to showing a control room panel, control room display monitors and diagrams of the nuclear power plant can be shown on the simulator screens, such as the display of the power plant in real time, shown below.


The impact of the Ontario Tech Nuclear Simulation Lab expands beyond Durham Region nuclear power workers, as various workshops are held there for members from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Health Canada and the International Atomic Energy Association, as well as visitors from any other country that also have CANDU reactors.


Distance learning is made possible through the use of the video conference technology available in the lab to allow distance learners the ability to see the three presentation screens at the front of the room, as well as the instructor. Viewers will be able to see up to four video displays at a time. A session can also be recorded, and automatically uploaded online with a link for student to access after the session is done. Up to 16 students can tune in at a time through their laptops, cell phones or tablets, and some corporate users or partners can even dial in to participate in the video call. One impressive teaching feature of the lab is the Eagle Eye Director Camera, which follows the instructor as he or she moves around the classroom, using priority voice and facial recognition technology. Who ever said online lectures have to dull?

Special thanks to Dr. George Bereznai and Khalid Rizk for information about the Nuclear Simulation Laboratory, as well as Sharman Perera for the tour.

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