The nuclear industry, a strategic pillar in the energy mix of many countries, faces crucial challenges in terms of safety and competitiveness. Digitalisation of this sensitive sector is becoming a necessity, and among the cutting-edge tools available* we're going to look at how virtual reality (VR) stands out.
Safety and competitiveness: the major challenges facing the nuclear industry
The nuclear industry faces many challenges in terms of safety and competitiveness. As far as safety is concerned, there is the management of risks and the safety of installations. Training workers in the risks associated with nuclear activities is essential, and virtual reality offers an effective solution by simulating real-life situations in a secure virtual environment.
Furthermore, to remain competitive, the nuclear industry must adapt to new technologies and working methods. It is in this context that virtual reality is emerging as a promising solution for reconciling maximum safety and operational efficiency.
Why VR in the nuclear industry?
The nuclear industry has always faced the challenge of carrying out operations in constrained, high-risk and inaccessible environments. This makes it difficult to test new working methods or tools on installations.
The digitalisation of the nuclear industry is resulting in a transition from traditional methods to advanced technological solutions. VR is emerging as a key tool in this transformation, enabling realistic simulation and highly specialised training. CEA List's Interactive Simulation Laboratory has been developing the XDE physics engine for nearly 20 years, a tool designed to facilitate the simulation of human or robotic operations in a virtual environment.
By enabling the simulation of virtual environments, VR offers an immersive training platform that allows workers to familiarise themselves with complex scenarios without any real risk. This technology also offers the possibility of testing and optimising emergency procedures, helping to strengthen preparedness for potential incidents. It reduces the costs associated with creating physical models, while offering greater flexibility to adapt to constant changes in the sector.
INTERACT is a Unity plug-in that facilitates industrial simulations in virtual reality. It enables manufacturers to reproduce, test and validate the physical behaviour of different processes and/or products in a realistic way.
1. Virtual reality boosts competitiveness
Virtual reality is emerging as a catalyst for strengthening the competitiveness of the nuclear industry. It accelerates the design of new reactors, such as modular reactors (SMRs) and pressurised water reactors (EPRs), by enabling design review at scale 1. It fosters real-time collaboration by bringing together all stakeholders in an immersive virtual environment. This speeds up the design process. Adjustments and improvements can be tested without limit, enabling rapid iterations and a significant reduction in development times.
Virtual reality also provides a crucial preventive solution for reducing downtime during maintenance shutdowns. By anticipating certain issues at the design stage, teams can virtually simulate maintenance scenarios, identifying high-risk areas and assessing best practice. This foresight enables maintenance procedures to be optimised, minimising reactor downtime.
The nuclear industry has been a pioneer in the development of remote operation devices, adopting cutting-edge technologies to enable remote intervention in highly radioactive environments. These devices, often equipped with robotic arms and advanced sensors, have revolutionised maintenance and dismantling operations by minimising human exposure to risky or hard-to-reach areas. One example is the Pi5G project. This breakthrough demonstrates the nuclear industry's commitment to innovation to ensure safety while pushing back the technological boundaries in complex environments.
2. Virtual reality: a solution for training and nuclear safety
Virtual reality offers immense possibilities for training and raising awareness among professionals working in the nuclear industry. Teams can recreate highly radioactive environments, enabling workers to train without being exposed to real risks. They are able to anticipate certain problems. By endlessly simulating real or fictitious scenarios, operators can train in safe conditions and rehearse the technical gestures that are essential for carrying out their tasks. Working in a risk-free environment promotes a better understanding of the tasks involved.
Illustration : INSTN , in collaboration with CEA-List and CEA's Nuclear Energy Directorate, is developing the EVOC (Enhanced Virtual Open Core) project, a multimodal teaching platform to enhance skills in the nuclear field.Launched in the last quarter of 2018, the platform offers immersive training using realistic multi-physics simulations.Trainees and students can thus carry out unprecedented practical work on a training reactor based on an initial pool-type model.This teaching approach combines real and virtual resources, enabling learners to practise individually or in groups on training paths closely linked to the physical phenomena of a reactor.
The video below provides an excellent explanation of the EVOC project and its uses.
3. The contribution of virtual reality to nuclear decommissioning
The dismantling of nuclear facilities is a complex and risky process that requires rigorous training of workers. Virtual reality offers an effective solution for training workers in dismantling procedures and the associated technical skills. It is possible to simulate the dismantling of a nuclear facility, faithfully reproducing the geometric, physical and radiological characteristics of the reactor.
ITER and virtual simulation for enhanced nuclear safety
ITER is a project bringing together 35 countries to build the world's largest nuclear fusion tokamak. Faced with the challenge of designing a complex experimental reactor, ITER turned to LS GROUP and the teams at the CEA to exploit the advantages of virtual reality.
As the reactor is still in the design phase, ITER is using virtual reality to carry out early tests. This approach enables them to simulate realistic interactions using INTERACT's XDE physics engine.
INTERACT has enabled the teams to validate complex operations while saving time and complying with the strictest safety standards.
To sum up, for several years now virtual reality has been establishing itself as a safety and operational pillar in the nuclear industry. The use cases described in this article demonstrate its proven effectiveness. Today, there is no risk in exploring this technology, as there are already powerful, industrialised tools for a variety of uses. Proven and tested, VR is paving the way for a future where nuclear safety and operational efficiency come together without compromise.