Game used to simulate disaster scenarios

Game used to simulate disaster scenarios

No plasma rifle or rocket launcher in this Unreal game, which is OK, because blowing up stuff around a nuclear reactor would be a bad idea, anyway.

University of Illinois Professor Rizwan Uddin and some of his students have turned the popular computer game Unreal Tournament into a simulation that could be used to help train nuclear plant workers, emergency responders and others.

Their first model is the former research reactor on campus, which the UI shut down in the late 1990s and began decommissioning nearly four years ago, as well as a square block around the facility, complete with local buildings, streets and street signs.

"We have it modeled right down to the staircases, doorways," Uddin said recently as students Joel Dixon and Stefano Markidis ran the simulation through its paces on a wall-sized rear-projection screen behind him. "All the rooms match, certainly close enough for training purposes."

The simulation features interactive control panels, doors that can be raised and lowered, even the occasional fire to put out.

The eventual goal is to model a number of typical nuclear reactor facilities, albeit it not with the exacting detail of the shuttered UI reactor, at least in freely available versions, since modeling an active plant in that way could present a security risk.

The simulation can even appear in 3-D on the big screen, if you wear an updated version of the funny glasses movie theaters used to hand out. Uddin said the simulation eventually might extend to multiwalled, full-room virtual environments like the UI's CAVE and CUBE.

The nuke plant "game" is multiplayer and networkable as well, so trainees across the country, or the world, can join together remotely to work through scenarios.

"Anyone who has access to the Internet," said Dixon, a senior in nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering from Glen Ellyn.

Uddin is a nuclear, plasma and radiological engineering professor. His research focuses on more efficient, less expensive and safer nuclear plant design and operation.

Development of the simulation is being funded under a federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission program to generate innovative approaches to training, particularly with virtual and distance learning elements.

Dixon and his fellow students, including University Laboratory High student Cheng Luo, presented their progress last semester at the American Nuclear Society conference in Washington, D.C. Besides Markidis, undergrad Jared Reynolds and grad student Jianwei Hu also worked on the simulation.

This semester, the group is getting a visit by a team from Exelon, which operates the Clinton nuclear power plant. The team will evaluate the software and offer feedback.

Unreal Tournament the computer game is a so-called "first-person shooter" in which the action is seen from a player's perspective and the player can interact with the on-screen environment via mouse and keyboard, as if he or she were there.

The UI researchers chose the game for building their simulation because it includes a tool, Unreal Editor, for making new environments and other modifications.

"It can easily generate the sort of buildings and environments that we do," Dixon said. "It doesn't take very long to learn how to use it."

They took out the weapons – the point is to solve nuclear reactor problems, not blast your opponent – but you can still die in the UI simulation. Color coding denotes radiation levels. Walk through a hot area and your on-screen health meter drops. Do that too many times and it's game over.

But not as quickly as getting shot with a plasma rifle.

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