NUCLEAR POWERTesting Gaming Technology to Train Nuclear Workforce

By Kristen Mally Dean

Published 19 April 2023

Video game software paired with high-tech hard hats can bridge theory and reality to engage a new generation of workers. Argonne engineers tested extended reality tools at the nation’s largest liquid metal test facility.

Most nuclear reactors in the U.S. were built decades ago by a workforce that has retired or will do so soon. That generation used paper checklists and traditional blueprints, tended to stay with one employer for years and often worked locally.

Today’s technicians, subject matter experts and engineers have different skills and expectations. They came of age in a world where computers seem to be everywhere, where employers and hometowns change often, and where remote work is more possible. They’re also very familiar with video games, digital paths to information and ubiquitous personal devices. The nuclear power industry, undergoing a renaissance because of its potential to reliably deliver more clean electricity, urgently needs to attract and train these workers to maintain existing plants and build anticipated new ones.

A small group of engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratoryaddresses this need in a recently released report, ​“Deploying Extended Reality (XR) for Digital Operations and Maintenance at the Mechanisms Engineering Test Loop (METL).” Their approach focuses on interest in and familiarity with personal devices and video game technology to explore how they can be used as a toehold for the next generation of nuclear professionals.

Engaging a New Generation
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a single nuclear power plant employs 500 to 800 workers in an impressive range of highly trained positions: carpenters, welders, electricians, health physicists, nuclear engineers, financial managers and more. The nuclear power industry wants and needs to develop this talent from a wide pool of trades, community colleges, four-year universities and the military.

Derek Kultgen thinks a more engaging, digitally enhanced workplace can help. Kultgen is operations manager of Argonne’s Mechanisms Test Loop Facility (METL), the nation’s largest liquid metal test facility where small- and medium-sized components are tested for use in advanced, sodium-cooled nuclear reactors. The facility holds 750 gallons of reactor-grade sodium that can be heated to 650 degrees Celsius and it is equipped with more than 1,000 sensors that collect diagnostic data. Even when scientists aren’t running experiments at METL, it provides enormous value because of its usefulness in training people and collecting operational data.