Monday, August 17, 2009

Running a Nuclear Plant on a Commodore 64?

complete Well, all right, not really – but welcome retro-computing fans, anyway – but we have been interested in how the nuclear energy utilizes computer systems. We know the basics of security – don’t point crucial systems at the internet is a big one – but on a day-to-day basis, how does the industry interact with computers? What does it do with them that’s unique?

Here’s part of the answer:

The new agreement, which adds to the original contract signed in April 2008, covers additional work necessary for Accenture to support business processes, including configuration management of detailed design data and management of data associated with required inspections; testing, and analyses; and use of acceptance criteria involved with the construction of nuclear energy facilities.

The agreement is between UniStar and Accenture, and it gets a little complicated after that. UniStar is jointly owned by Constellation and EDF, tasked with developing, as its home page says, “the safest, most reliable and most economical construction and operational fleet of new nuclear facilities;” Accenture is a consulting company (they produced a poll about nuclear energy that we spotlighted awhile ago). The computer platform described above is called Galaxy. It sounds, to put it mildly, multifaceted.

Daniel P. Krueger, managing director of Accenture’s Power Generation practice said, “We believe Galaxy’s standardized and interoperable approach delivers the most effective capabilities to support the licensing, design, construction and operation of new nuclear energy facilities. Our work with UniStar continues to position Accenture at the leading edge of the new nuclear energy renaissance.”

Some buzz words in there. Standardized how? Interoperable with what? (Our guess: written in Java, run as a web-based service, hosted on Unix/Linux – that would capture those elements pretty well.)

So, it sounds like a business logic platform – or suite of programs – to help the multitude of vendors and in-house folks stay in sync while they track all the elements that go into building new plants. And since this is a Constellation/EDF deal, Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs looks like the perfect place to run the system through its paces.

We wonder, though – will Accenture promote this system to other entities? Seems like it should, being standard and interoperable and all.

The Commodore 64, Introduced in 1982, remains the best selling computer model ever. Why? It was cheap (as low as $99) and it stayed on the market for some 12 years while Commodore tried fruitlessly to move customers to more advanced (C 128, Plus 4) platforms. It took the company going out of business to kill it. Remarkable, even if we doubt it saw much use at a nuclear power plant.


Alex Brown said...

For what its worth, the Commodore 64 is more powerful then the computers running most nuclear power plants.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, computers don't "run" nuclear plants, unless you are talking about the Organic Computer Mark I, and maybe you are. The Organic Mark I doesn't have the number-crunching brute force of a C-64, but it has a subtle, intuitive brand of intelligence that has yet to be matched in the silicon world.

Alex Brown said...

The automatic safety features are "run" by computers (or in some cases discrete logic cards).

Anonymous said...

Not really a "computer" in the traditional sense of a PDP. It doesn't run safety system "software". I worked on the DSS developed in the UK back in the early 1980s. They were very careful to assure that everything was really "hard wired", i.e., etched into a chip. The questions the regulators kept bringing up about software V&V were just insumountable.

Alex Brown said...

Well, the system you are use to may not run software, but some of them do. Westinghouse's "Eagle 21" system uses an Intel 286 chip and runs x86 software that your modern computers are still backwards compliant with (IE: that code should run even on the most advanced x86 chips).

There is a whole range of systems between analog, discrete digital systems, and software based digital systems. Many plants use a combination of systems. But you are right, the non-safety systems are usually much more advanced than the safety systems because its hard to PROVE something as complicated as a modern CPU (with a billion transistors) will not fail. People should remember that while your computer may be expected to last 5 years a nuclear reactor is designed to last 60 years (although the logic cards are periodically replaced).

Anonymous said...

Computer replacement is often driven by the need for more processor power to operate more complex and demanding software, which tends to bloat somewhat rapidly. I know when I have replaced a computer the old was was working fine, it just would not run (very well) some cool new program I wanted to have.

I had a PDP-11 at work that ran fine from 1975 until 1988 when the software updates migrated to 386-based systems. I don't know if there are similar drivers in the control systems business.