RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
NPR's Mike Shuster reports.
MIKE SHUSTER: Highly realistic, says Kelly Michel, the project leader, including wiring, cables, boxes, warning signs, radiation stickers and much more.
KELLY MICHEL: What we're looking at right here is a pipe with material moving through it that's been peeled away, so there's some transparency there. If we had a data spigot, so to speak, feeding this computer, we could give you temperature, pressure, density and pipe contents for every pipe and every conduit that you would see in that facility that had data correlated with it.
SHUSTER: The project is called VISIBLE, an acronym for Virtual Simulation Baseline Experience.
PHILIP HYPES: In virtual reality, we can let people learn about a facility by standing in places that would not be safe or possible to stand.
SHUSTER: Philip Hypes is a coordinator of nuclear non-proliferation projects at Los Alamos.
HYPES: We can make walls and pipes transparent and actually watch material flow or not flow. We can treat an entire multibillion-dollar facility as a laboratory, where we can play around with different configurations of detectors and cameras and things. And, essentially, do experiments that would be prohibitively expensive if you tried to do them any other way.
SHUSTER: When it was done it got a good reception at the Idaho lab, says Birch Hayes, the project's key software expert.
BIRCH HAYES: We gave this to them and they've used it in a number of ways - for visitors, trainees, new employees. We showed it at a workshop and then the following day took people out to the facility, and they felt like they had been there before, which was exactly the effect that we were looking for.
SHUSTER: Birch Hayes operates the laptop to move virtual radioactive material through the monitor.
HAYES: Because we're in a virtual environment, we can show you things that are invisible in real life. For instance, these two samples on the table are continuously outputting gamma.
SHUSTER: Gamma is one of the basic kinds of radiation that the nucleus of radioactive atoms gives off.
HAYES: So now we've painted them so you can see them. And I can pick it up, bring it over to the gateway, which will subsequently alarm.
(SOUNDBITE OF A SIREN)
SHUSTER: This is all happening in the computer, not in real life, but it has the verisimilitude of real life. The software has already paid dividends in the form of better-trained nuclear inspectors scoring significantly higher on training tests, says Kelly Michel.
MICHEL: We're right on the cusp, right on the verge, frankly, of making this a worldwide applied technology and capability.
SHUSTER: Mike Shuster, NPR News.
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