Psst – Wanna Buy A Control Panel From A Nuclear Power Station?

Doing the rounds today is an interesting lot in an otherwise unexciting industrial dispersal auction in Lincolnshire, UK. On sale is an “Ex nuclear plant reactor control/monitoring system“, at the time of writing attracting the low low bid of £220 ($270), but we guess it will rise. Everyone who has watched Chernobyl (or maybe The Simpsons) is now gazing awestruck at a crescent of metal consoles covered in screens, buttons, and joysticks just waiting for a staff of white-coated technicians to pore over them.

Chernobyl Unit 3 control room (still active). [Source: IAEA Imagebank on Flickr CC-SA 2.0]
It’s a very cool lot indeed, but it raises more questions than it answers. The auction house has very little information indeed, so we’re left guessing, where did it come from? From this image showing the unit 3 control room at Chernobyl it’s obvious didn’t come from there (/s). Since it is for sale in the UK, and the country has decommissioned the majority of its first-generation reactors by now, so there is no shortage of candidates. But that intriguing possibility raises another question. Is it even a reactor control panel in the first place?

British civilian nuclear plants have tight security but they are hardly a secret, so plenty of photos are online showing their interiors. And in studying those we hit a problem, this panel doesn’t resemble any of the control panel images we can find. The first generation of Magnox (Magnetic Oxide Magnesium Non Oxidising) plants had panels covered in analogue dials and chart recorders so it’s unlikely to be one of those. The second-generation AGR (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor) stations had similarly complex panels, and it’s evidently not one of them.

Looking closely at the photos it becomes apparent that there are a lot of camera controls and monitors, and even what looks like a uMatic video recorder. It’s definitely nuclear-related and the 1980s look of it suggests maybe it could have come from an Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor (AGR) station, but could it be a little closer to Sector 7G than the centre of the action? Is it a video monitoring console used to keep a physical eye on its operation?

Be careful if you bid, you could end up with a rather cool but absurdly large 1980s CCTV system. Can any of our readers shed any light on the matter?

Thanks [Gregg “Cabe” Bond] for the tip.

71 thoughts on “Psst – Wanna Buy A Control Panel From A Nuclear Power Station?

    1. Coming from the control room, if it’s had more exposure to/contamination by radiation than any common everyday object, this panel would either be a costly artifact of a famous nuclear accident, or it would’ve come from soviet Russia…

      1. The rules about nuclear safety are a bit weird. The radiation limit of what is considered “contaminated” is 30 times lower for anything taken out of a nuclear plant, than for the industries overall. That’s partly because the legislators don’t/didn’t understand what they’re dealing with, and partly because it stops corporations from simply diluting stuff to just under the limit and passing it off as normal.

        But the side effect is that things that weren’t exposed to contamination at all can still be un-recyclable and can’t be sold to the public as scrap, because they were naturally radioactive when they went in. They have to be processed as low level waste, which is why e.g. Germany has salt mines full of old overalls and hundreds of thousands of barrels of water stashed away as “nuclear waste” – and the enviro-trolls and other little green men are gnashing teeth about how they’re leaking and oh how dangerous it is.

          1. Overalls, lots, water, not as much. Formal naval reactor operator here. The controls are very stringent and lots of stuff that is not contaminated gets counted as waste. Low level water does get processed and reused though.

          2. A lot. The stuff they put down in WIPP has to meet certain -minimum- radiation criteria to be accepted, because otherwise they’d just be burying old mops and rags. Most of the low level waste it stored on-site at the nuclear power stations, waiting for the eventual decommissioning.

            There’s four LLW disposal sites in the US at Barnwell, South Carolina; Richland, Washington; Clive, Utah; and Andrews County, Texas. Then the DOE has dozens of LLW sites around wherever they happened to bury the stuff at Nevada, Hanford, Los Alamos etc.

          3. > Low level water does get processed and reused though.

            I’m not entirely sure of the reason, but I think when Germany banned the re-processing of nuclear fuels, they also banned the processing of the reactor loop coolant water.

    2. Nahhhhhh the control room in a plant that didn’t go kablooey is probably safer than that area of produce section with all the bananas at the supermarket. The CRTs might give you a few soft x-rays if they get overvolted, but otherwise I wouldn’t worry.

      I think the shipping costs would be a hazard to my health, though. Nonetheless, I want it badly.

      1. Most have a redundant one in a bunker underneath. A few years ago I spent a summer in Ukraine working IN nuclear safety and I visited Zaporizhzhya NPP which is europe biggest NPP and they took me to see the control room which was deep underground behind some very thick doors, I remember thinking how old the control room looked and all the equipment likewise.

    3. Unless its from a major accident, no it could not be. Things that have been contaminated (had something radioactive spilled on them) don’t get sold to the public. What your thinking of is activation, where metal in a neutron flux is changed and begins to emit particles on its own. The control room is sufficiently removed/shielded from the core that this can not happen.

      1. I can tell that you have minimal “radiation knowledge”… but… you did a good job of dancing through the explanation of neutron activation. And, it is so refreshing to see comments from people who understand the concept of “radioactive material”. I commend you, sir. Good job!

    4. Exposure to electromagnetic radiation such as gamma rays does not make something radioactive. It takes neutron exposure to do this. And, neutrons are only found in the core of the operating reactor, not in the control room.

    5. First, there is no significant ionizing radiation exposure to be found in a control room.
      Second, it is the TYPE of radiation that determines whether mere exposure changes the properties of an exposed material:
      Gamma radiation, being electromagnetic in nature, penetrates easily. We are relatively transparent to gammas, but they do damage when they interact. They do not change a stable atom into a radioactive one (except for rare cases of extremely high energy gammas). Beta radiation, being a small charged particle (an electron, specifically) is minimally penetrating and can do damage to surface layers. They do not change a stable atom into an unstable (radioactive) one. Alpha radiation is a large, strongly charged, particle (actually it is the equivalent of an ionized helium atom… its nucleus, being composed of two positively charged protons plus two neutrons). It barely penetrates matter, but does massive localized damage. It is only (fast) neutron radiation which is capable of transforming a stable atom into a radioactive one. You see, the neutron(s) get “absorbed” into the nucleus of the target atom, making it unstable and radioactive (prone to radioactive decay… or, disintegration).
      Only “background” levels of naturally-occuring gamma radiation are to be found in the control room. There is no beta (other than that found naturally-occuring in our bodies), no alpha, and certainly no neutrons.
      (I’m sorry I was so long-winded, but I wanted to be clear and complete.)

      1. Indeed.

        Not that it will make a blind bit of difference to them and to make matters worse, you obviously know what you’re talking about which means you must be part of the ‘conspiracy’ and thus lying about the dangers.

  1. Label on one desk says something like ‘Only authorised users as per Sizewell A Training & something something’. (Sizewell A (magnox) reactor in Suffolk is being decommissioned currently)

    1. That and the BNFL asset tags on multiple things backs up the “nuclear reactor” claim, though if it was the training setup, I don’t suppose it’s a real reactor. Still an interesting auction though

        1. There was no element of reactor control in this panel, the reactor temperature indication was probably just so they could operate the cameras within acceptable temperature limits. Even with the reactor shut down it would start to warm up when the gas circulators weren’t being run, which they probably weren’t while these repairs were being carried out.

        1. That’s a great spot. I had got as far as identifying that some of the controls marked ARM 1 & ARM 2 were for a manipulator. Azimuth, vertical, shoulder angle, etc. All except a couple of the grey monitors are Vistek high resolution B&W video monitors. to date it, Vistek Electronics was started in about 1995, and was bought by Pro-Bel about 2005, and their name went out of use shortly after. One at least of the monitors is an American made by Magnox (confusion!) as is the control box under it. It has a 115V label on the front. Some of the joysticks are for the camera’s, but others (the arcs of 6) are for manipulator arms. This being the control desk for a processing plant makes sense. Does not look like an actual reactor control panel.

          I actually visited Sizewell A in 1983 and got a tour with the Medical Physics Officer. The reactor was down for maintenance, and although the visitor centre was open, he was bored and had been manning the desk! He said the most dangerous thing on the site from his point of view was the huge tank of Chlorine used to clean the intake water filters. Otherwise, except in the fuel processing room, and inside the containment the radiation level was about the same as the normal background anywhere else in the country.

          The most radioactive place I’ve been was next to the spoil tips at the Drax coal fired power station on Humberside. This is the residue cleaned out of the grates from the boilers. It contains all the heavy metals left after the coal is burned and can be as much as 10 times the background level. I was shooting a video for British Rail about the coal trains which delivered to the station, and we all had to wear radiation monitor badges.

          I don’t know who would want this other than a film company to use as a set. The video tech involved would not work with modern HD stuff. It’s a bit sad that there are a couple of what look like 21″ NEC Grade 1 monitors. They cost about £5 or £6 thousand in the mid-90s! All the monitors are CRT so you couldn’t use them now. You could take all the monitors out and build a retro TV Studio control room. That could be fun.

          1. “The most radioactive place I’ve been was next to the spoil tips at the Drax coal fired power station on Humberside. ”

            Any idea what the level was? I once visited a spot in Giant’s Hole in Derbyshire (Chert Hall) where a level of 155,000 Bq/m3 was measured (Gunn et al, 1991: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/John_Gunn8/publication/286346898_Research_on_radon_in_British_limestone_caves_and_mines_1970-1990/links/5832c7aa08aef19cb81abd00.pdf ) but have no real feel for how high that really is (other than being about 1000 times higher than would prompt remediation in a domestic property)

          2. Correction, a typical house is under 200 Bq/m3 while an apartment is under 50.

            The difficulty is that Bequerel counts activity as decays per second, not radiation energy. The Potassium-40 in your body is responsible for about 4,400 Bq in total. In order to compare, you’d have to adjust for the type of radionuclide to find the energy in Gray or Sievert.

          3. There are 15 Bq in the average banana. With the average weight of a banana being 150g and a density of 1g/cm3 that gives a volume of 150cm3 each, so that would be approximately 6,666 bananas in a cubic meter, so 6,666 X 15 Bq = 99,990 Bq/m3 or more correctly 99.99 kBq/m3, so not far off what you saw at Giant’s Hole.

  2. There are NEC displays, that branding became a thing in 1983. The displays are large, flat, have relatively small bezels and appear to have integrated speakers. The speakers suggest that they are cots displays that were integrated and not custom for the purpose. I don’t know when flat panel displays of that size became widely available. I suspect that they were computer or terminal displays and not video or oscilloscope.

    1. Two of the monitors have been replaced with flat panels. I bet at some absurdly large cost for custom analog to digital adaption from the circuitry that drove the originals.

      Someone looking for a thing to modify for a starship bridge set could make use of this.

      1. This is a 90s installation and there were no affordable flat panel displays of this size then. However NEC did make a 21″ CRT display with a flat face for use in TV studios for colour grading and such. They were expensive, and one of the best displays around at the time. You could put two or more beside each other and they would be the same colour.

    1. I remember that name as a US company that made video equipment. I think originally it was a brand of TV. The video recorder is a Sony and marked “DVCam” which was the semi-Pro version. I don’t recognize the model. There are a couple of switch boxes with that name and one of the grey monitors too. That has a 115V label stuck on the front.

  3. All it is a sheet metal enclosure for 70s and 80s computers. The only thing that comes into a Nuclear Plant control room is low voltage electronic signals. All plant systems transmit their parameters in low voltage DC. So this thing is pretty much worthless. Source I have been in the Nuclear power plant business for over 20 years.

      1. Yep. Piping has taps where pressure transmitters are attached. The transmitter creates a very low voltage DC between 0 an 10 which is then carried over low voltage wiring to a computer then the computer sends that a signal to a analog or digital meter or computer to display the value and provide for control. Same instruments and controls used in pretty much any industrial application or conventional power plants. Nuclear grade just has more stringent quality control requirements

          1. Each application is different and those systems are also used but most of these plants were designed in the 70s and digital modernization happens slowly over the life of the plant.

      1. In the long run, it may be less expensive to hire, the Adam Savage like, prop masters, to build, light weight replicas. In the back ground, there’s a producer yealling into the phone, is cost how much to ship that SOB?

  4. My eyes immediately glommed onto this bit of the auction site:
    “(no public collection due to COVID-19 guidelines – shipping is available by pallet or parcel delivery)”

    While clearly this would be a series of pallets, the mental image of each section showing up as parcels (bubble-padded envelopes?) was kind of endearing :-D

  5. My “real” ;) man cave is my shop, and radio shack is is constructed, on slab on grade. Note to meself. In the event I’m ever forced to build in suburbs. Construct the basement with a large doorway with a loading ramp

    1. This was a control desk for a manipulator to perform repairs to the Reactor Guide Tube Assembly at Sizewell A power station, a graphite cored gas cooked reactor fuelled with Magnox fuel (Natural Uranium metal bars clad in a Magnesium Non-oxidising alloy – hence Magnox). The guide tube assembly was an array of tubes that connected the bottom of the standpipe that the fuel would be loaded and unloaded through, to the graphite reactor core itself. I’m not sure of the exact problem, but there was obviously some sort of problem that necessitated a reinforcement repair which would have to have been performed remotely due to the very high radiation in that location. The standpipe above, or adjacent to the GTA to be repaired would be removed and replaced with a special alternative standpipe that housed the manipulator and cameras, and another standpipe location would be used for a standpipe rig with additional cameras. The control desk for sale would have been used to drive the manipulator and view the repair on the series of different cameras. It is likely to have been used adjacent to the Reactor Pile Cap it reasonable close proximity to the top of the standpipes to limit the run of cables connecting the control desk to the cameras and manipulator. The manipulator having been used adjacent to the Reactor core would have become quite contaminated, though probably not activated as it would only have been used while the reactor was shut down. The control desk was unlikely to have been contaminated, but even if it had been it would have simply needed wiping down to remove it.
      If you search for World’s Reactors No. 39 you can see a cutaway diagram of Wylfa which while a slightly different design has very similar standpipes and the GTA is clearly illustrated as item number 5.

  6. This is brillant – this is all equipment for remote inspection and repair of the reactors, made by the Remote Operations group of Magnox Electric plc – later BNFL Magnox Generation. The company was the last part of the government owned Central Electricity Generating Board that managed the older Magnox gas cooled reactors. I worked for Remote Ops around the turn of the century, so this equipment dates from the 90s. We were the team that would come in during the outages (shutdowns) and perform the statutory inspections of the reactor internals, and remote repairs if necessary.

    It was an incredible team to work with – the talent and innovation required to keep the old reactors working was really inspiring – imagine trying to weld something 15 metres away – and you can only get through a 150 mm hole. The SNAKES manipulator was a 15 degree-of-freedom robot that could get through that hole into the reactor and hoist a 50 kg payload into position through a maze of above core equipment. The control was so complex, that we employed a mathematician to develop the equations for resolved motion, and were an early user of Deneb IGRIP (later Dassault Delmia) 3D software to plan and rehearse robot trajectories (on Silicon Graphic boxes).

    There were many of hours of toil and sweat put into getting these machines to work perfectly for the outages – so the lights would stay on. I hope they are appreciated by someone.

    1. Hi Guy,
      The Snakes and all its control gear is still at Wylfa. It was cleaned, monitored and wrapped ready to the sold to EDF but they changed their mind last minute. While it is incredible kit, I guess it is only any good with the crew that built, maintained and operated it.
      You will likely see some of it on Ramco’s auction site eventually and the Snakes itself will be cut up to remove the contaminated parts allowing the rest to be recycled.

      What a waste!

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