Three nuclear power plant simulators

Posted by HEx 2019-06-15 at 00:07

With the world in the grip of Chernobyl fever I figured I'd go see what was out there by way of nuclear power plant simulators. I've not seen the TV series, but as someone who's long been fascinated by this kind of intricate disaster, causing a meltdown in the safety of your own home sounds like a no-brainer in terms of fun. So with high hopes I googled "nuclear reactor simulator".

First up is the University of Manchester's Nuclear Reactor Simulator.

It's of the "modern" school of casual gaming, where everything is better with narration and tutorials and fancy animations on the assumption that players have the attention span of a goldfish. Seriously, it's a nuclear reactor simulator. Why would you be interested in such a thing if you weren't at least slightly detail-oriented?

But looking past that, you have a total of two controls (not counting the coolant pump switch which you should never touch except to switch it on and leave it there). They control two dials that you have to keep in the green and out of the red. What do green and red represent? Who the hell knows? There's no numbers of any kind.

Actually I lie. It does come with fun factoids about how much fuel a nuclear plant might use in a year compared to a fossil fuel plant. Yes, actual numbers, but included for no other reason than to dazzle.

Verdict: complete waste of time.

Next is

This is straight out of the late nineties despite being made in 2012, replete with gratuitous animated GIFs, textured backgrounds and and sliders you can't drag. (Also an inexplicable fondness for BiCapitalization.)

But you do have *three* controls this time, and eight parameters you have to keep within bounds. They actually have numbers, although figuring out what units they're in is a puzzle unto itself.

There's also some token attempt at making it a kind of management sim where you have to turn a profit, but it's terribly balanced.

The idea is that you get paid per watt you put on the grid, and you have fixed expenses plus the cost of repairing any bits you inadvertently redline. This is all well and good except that going over the arbitrary thresholds by 1% causes precisely the same damage as going over by 50%, which makes no sense whatsoever.

You'd think that damaging hardware would be orders of magnitude more expensive than whatever profit you might make at the wheel, but it turns out that repairs and even fines for being forced to vent radioactive steam into the atmosphere make basically no impact on your bottom line (which, incidentally, is typically in the tens of millions, and shown as an integer--yes! of course having to parse 8-digit numbers at a glance is a good idea).

It has a saving grace, namely that your fuel burns up as you go. So not only do you need to spend money on refuelling, but you have to balance at what point you want to refuel. Too early and you waste money replacing still-viable fuel, too late and you're struggling to maintain the power output of your reactor as it gets increasingly unstable.

This has the potential to be awesome, but instead the game imposes an arbitrary cutoff of "20%" at which you must replace your fuel. And refuelling, like other repairs, is instantaneous and does not require that you shut down the reactor first. Which is a complete shame, because one of the other potentially fun balancing acts you have to perform is how fast you get your reactor up to its rated power output. Too slow and you're losing potential income as you ramp up bit by bit, too fast and you're paying through the nose for running the power-hungry coolant pumps full blast on external grid power while your core gets up to temperature, all the while being careful not to overshoot and cause a meltdown.

Sadly the amount of actual simulation it does is extremely minimal. The game mechanics occupy about a page of unminified javascript. I trust its physics not at all.

And then there's the bizarre "Secondary flow cannot exceed 65% of Heat Exchanger temperature. Increase Heat Exchanger temperature or reduce Secondary Coolant flow.".

What is "secondary flow"? It has a maximum of 250 whatevers. Is that degrees Celsius like the heat exchanger temperature is? What basis in reality does such a constraint have? Is it a safety feature? How is multiplying (non-absolute) temperatures ever a good idea?

To be clear, "cannot exceed" means the game automatically turns it down for you. But surely the point of such a simulation is to let you find out the consequences firsthand rather than prohibiting you from doing bad things. As it is, I suspect it's there solely to make the game less trivial.

Verdict: mildly compelling, very little basis in reality, so much low-hanging fruit.

And finally we come to the turd that is Power Plant Simulator.

This is like Tabletop Simulator in that controls that would be straightforward in 2D are instead rendered in a virtual environment you can move around. Also like TTS it is payware and runs under Windows.

But that is not what makes it a turd. It is a turd because it periodically lights up a display that you have to copy onto adjacent controls within a time limit otherwise it catches fire.

What does this have to do with a nuclear power plant? Nothing.

I have no idea why anyone would pay $3.99 for such a thing. Judging by the youtube comments, maybe the Simpsons is responsible for most of its sales. Certainly the realism is Simpsons-level.

Verdict: nggggghhhh.

And that's my patience for today. If anyone knows of any actual simulators that understand, say, xenon poisoning and cavitation (to name just two of the things that make the Chernobyl disaster interesting) but that are nonetheless intelligible to someone whose knowledge of nuclear physics is due entirely to late-night wikipedia sessions, by all means let me know.

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