Distributed Control System (DCS) Emulation versus Simulation – Which is better for your nuclear power plant simulator?

by | Jun 23, 2016 | Simulation & Training

The decision to use the Distributed Control System (DCS) vendor supported virtual or emulated solution versus the simulator vendor’s traditional “simulated” approach is creating a lot of discussion in nuclear training.

You might be surprised to hear a simulation provider tell you that simulating the DCS is not always your best option. Well, that’s exactly what we’re saying. Utilities faced with the decision between an emulated versus simulated DCS solution need to make the decision based on what’s best in the long run, from their training program to their pocketbook.

There are times when an emulated/virtual solution is not available, such as when a DCS provider doesn’t have an emulated version of their software. This is becoming  increasingly unlikely. Many DCS vendors are developing emulated or virtual solutions for their products. Both GE and Westinghouse now have emulated/virtual solutions. Keep in mind the industry’s challenge of delivering the Nuclear Promise for increasing efficiency and finding ways to lower costs. Utilities should consider three key factors to evaluate emulated versus simulated DCS solutions for the simulator; fidelity, cost, and virtual commissioning benefits.

Why Does it Matter if I Have a High-Fidelity DCS?

With an emulated solution, the simulation vendor uses the actual proprietary plant software code and data file from the DCS vendor to create the solution in the simulator. This produces the highest fidelity simulator solution possible. With a simulated solution a software engineer will produce a lower fidelity, simplified functional model based on a functional description of the plant system. This method relies on the system knowledge of the simulation vendor. However, even the most seasoned simulation engineer will never know all of the inner workings of the proprietary DCS code.

The higher the fidelity of a nuclear power plant simulator, the less risk of negative training. Negative training can happen when the simulator doesn’t operate exactly the same as the real plant. There have been several industry events which were the result of the simulator operating differently than the plant, even to the extent that the NRC has issued findings. As recent as 2015, a white finding was issued for a simulator failing to demonstrate expected plant response. A single plant event such as a trip or extension of an outage can be a very costly consequence of negative training on the simulator. Avoiding these scenarios of negative training increases the safety and reliability of the plant which has a direct influence on economic performance and helping the industry deliver the Nuclear Promise.

Reduce Your O&M Budget

Plant control & logic and human machines interfaces (HMI) or human system interfaces (HSI) will change as the plant is upgraded and maintained. When the software in the plant gets an update, your simulator needs to be updated to reflect those changes or you risk being out of compliance. The process to implement plant software changes in the simulator can be significantly more difficult and time consuming with a simulated DCS than with an emulated DCS. The additional time and potential vendor costs of maintaining a simulated DCS will negatively impact your simulator O&M budget, challenging a utility’s ability to deliver the Nuclear Promise.

For an emulated DCS, your simulator team has to run the new plant data file through the emulator and then implement the new simulator software that is output from the emulator. Because the simulator software was created using the plant data files and transformed through the emulated software tool, the simulator will be exactly in sync with the plant. Therefore, providing the lowest risk and upgrade cost option.

Implementing the new plant software into a simulated DCS solution requires much more forethought, analysis, and testing. Your simulator team will need to study each plant change. They also must determine how to apply it in the simplified, estimated functionality simulator software. This method requires extensive care and testing to make sure the updated simulator will operate the same as the real plant. This method carries a high risk of error. The process is not only more time consuming, but often times requires the simulation vendor to be contracted to make the changes thus increasing the cost of the upgrade. Time and costs start to add up in scenarios where the new functionality in the plant was not anticipated when the simplified solution was designed.

Virtual Commissioning for DCS Upgrades

Gen II and Gen III plants are undergoing and expected to undergo more instances of digital control and HMI/HSI upgrades. Utilities are recognizing that their high-fidelity plant simulator is a powerful virtual commissioning tool. Simulators allow operators to test drive plant changes before anything goes live, from HMI/HSI and control room design to alarms and indications.

Virtually testing these plant changes lowers the risk of costly plant outage extensions and field changes during and after DCS upgrades. These outage extensions and field changes can cost utilities tens of thousands of dollars, or more, per incident. Virtual commissioning is one way to avoid these incidents. It is also key to increasing efficiency and supporting a plant in delivering the Nuclear Promise. But here’s the catch, the utility must have a high-fidelity emulated DCS solution in order to take advantage of virtual commissioning. Virtually commissioning a digital control system upgrade on a simulator is only possible if the control system models on the simulator are exactly the same as the plant. You just can’t trust the simplified models of a simulated DCS solution to verify the appropriate functionality of the plant system.


Nuclear power plants are required to have a high-fidelity simulator for operator training and evaluation, and tasked with maintaining the simulator fidelity throughout the life of the plant. When faced with the decision to choose an emulated or simulated DCS solution there are many factors to consider. While utilities might be tempted to go with the initial lower price tag of a simulated DCS solution, they’d be amiss to ignore the risks of negative training, long term maintenance costs, and inability to effectively test plant changes. As utilities search for ways to deliver the Nuclear Promise of increasing efficiency and lowering costs, consider how the fidelity of your DCS simulator solution will affect the plant’s ability to run efficiently and safely. The bottom line? Go emulated!

  • Higher fidelity lowers the risk of negative training
  • Reduce your O&M budget with lower maintenance costs
  • Makes virtual commissioning of plant upgrades possible


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