Decommissioning: teams developing robots to work in radioactive areas


As hopes rise, cautiously, pending negotiations with Kim Jong-un, many hope to see all nuclear installations safely decommissioned and never replaced.

Tom Robinson, Deputy of the Robotics and Autonomous Systems Centre of Expertise at Sellafield, points out in The Energy Hub (header above), that the radiation levels in many facilities are too high to allow manual cleaning and dismantling, so remote or robotic solutions are required. 

In The Engineer last year Jon Excell reported that a team of engineers from Universities of Manchester, Birmingham, and the West of England (UWE) with Sellafield, EdF Energy, UKAEA and NuGen had received £4.6m of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funding to develop robots for cleaning up the UK’s legacy of dangerous nuclear waste. This Autonomous Intelligent Systems Partnership, plans to develop robots with advanced computing, sensing and mechanical abilities.

Greig Cameron also reports in The Times that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has given the Aberdeen-based John Wood Group a grant of £1.5 million to develop robots to help to clean up nuclear sites. It intends to adapt technology already used in space exploration, car production and medicine to help in nuclear decommissioning, using new data analysis, control systems and robotics technologies to design a demonstration system for cleaning and dismantling radioactive rooms at Sellafield in Cumbria.

Japan Atomic Power Co. has a facility in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, close to several nuclear power plants, where remote-controlled robots for use in the nation’s nuclear power plants are stationed. It also trains engineers to control robots.

Packbot can measure radiation levels and shoot video; Warrior, is capable of removing debris and both can be used if leaks are detected in containment vessels and radiation levels surge dangerously. They were manufactured by U.S.-based iRobot Corp and used at the Fukushima No. 1 plant. Read more here.

As the Engineer article points out, though robotic systems have previously been used to deal with hazardous nuclear materials, notably at Japan’s damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant, there are still challenges in remote and robotic decommissioning to be overcome.  The technology still has limitations, for instance in turning valves, navigating staircases and moving over rough terrain.

Among the areas John Wood will ‘look at’ are a multi-fingered grip to allow robots to grasp different objects and ways for machines to operate at different heights. A navigation system designed for missions to Mars is also to be deployed to allow the robots to generate maps independently where human access is not possible.

Robotic arm developed by the Nuclear and Applied Robotics Group (University of Austin, Texas)

Tom Robinson adds that Sellafield Ltd. has recently deployed the RISER system developed by Createc and Blue Bear Systems, small unmanned aerial systems which successfully mapped the radiation levels of the Pile Chimney, a 110 m tall ventilation shaft in the UK’s first nuclear reactor.

The Caesium Extraction Plant was decommissioned using a remote decommissioning machine with two robotic arms, which was mounted on a telescopic boom and deployed five tools at the workface.

Bob MacDonald, chief executive of John Wood’s specialist technical solutions business, says that the project intends to produce afully remote solution’, removing the human operator from hazardous environments.





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Senior Chinese diplomat restates China’s NFU nuclear policy

The Straits Times and other regional papers are reporting the Xinhua news restating China’s commitment to the principle of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, first made in 1964.

It was made by Ms Fu Ying, a veteran diplomat and now chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislature on Saturday (Feb 17). She also expressed concerns about the danger of nuclear development at present at the ongoing Munich Security Conference.

Stressing that China maintains a very small nuclear arsenal, and China follows the policy of self-defence and minimum deterrence, she added, “Under no circumstances will China use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones”.

Ms Fu shared and expressed the concern about the danger, about the risk of the nuclear development, noting that the challenges and dangers are growing.

Finally she added that China supports the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and believes it is important that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council should continue to take responsibility to maintain global strategic stability, to safeguard non-proliferation regime, and to continue nuclear disarmament.

Western media focussed instead on reciprocal recriminations delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubei and the summoning of police protection for a German Green Party politician.




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Hinkley Point C conflict of interest: consultancy firms working for both government and developers

Alex Ralph in The Times reports that consultancy firms working for the government on the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station were advising the project’s Chinese investor and its French builder at the same time:

  • KPMG, the professional services group, was paid £4.4 million between 2012 and 2017 as a financial adviser to the energy and business departments, despite telling officials that it was also acting for China General Nuclear Power Corp on the project.
  • Lazard, the financial advisory firm, was paid £2.6 million between 2012 and 2015 to advise the business department on Hinkley Point. Details of its previously redacted tender documents reveal that it was an adviser to EDF, the French developer investing in Hinkley Point alongside the Chinese.
  • Leigh Fisher associates, another government adviser, had been awarded contracts worth a combined £1.2 million, though the British division of Jacobs Engineering Group, an American firm that owns Leigh Fisher, was working for EDF on Hinkley Point.

First FOI response delivers heavily redacted documents

The details were released more than eighteen months after The Times complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which intervened to press for disclosure from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The department had previously handed over heavily redacted documents in response to a Freedom of Information request claiming that the information  was commercially sensitive.

The FT notes that Hinkley C’s expected contribution to UK electricity demand on completion in 2025 is only 7% for a cost of almost £20bn. A report from the National Audit Office in June found that the government’s deal had “locked consumers into a risky and expensive project with uncertain strategic and economic benefits”.

Paul Flynn, a Labour MP who has campaigned against Hinkley Point C, said that the project was the “worst civil investment decision made by any government” and that the potential conflicts of interest were “further proof that the contract was agreed for political imperatives . . . To avoid future calamities, a full national inquiry must be held.”







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Nuclear Posture Review – ‘a bit of drama?’

 A sequel to the last post on the Nuclear Industries site (Feb.1)

Defense One, part of the Atlantic Media Group (mission: to inform, elevate and challenge the national discourse) reports the Defense Department’s comment that the threshold hasn’t changed since the Obama administration’s own nuclear posture review in 2010, but the draft of the new review that was leaked online has caused ‘a bit of drama’ in its attempts to dispel ‘ambiguity’.

The new review gives examples of “non-nuclear strategic attacks,” Robert Soofer, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear and missile defense policy, told reporters on Thursday. “It could be catastrophic attacks against civilian populations, against infrastructure. It could be an attack using a non-nuclear weapon against our nuclear command-and-control [or] early-warning satellites. But we don’t talk about cyber.”

In his own conversation with reporters, Gen. Paul Selva (left), vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, broadened “early warning” systems to include ones that provide “indications of warning that are important to our detection of an attack.”

No matter how ambiguous language in the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review may seem, a cyber attack on U.S. infrastructure would not warrant a nuclear strike on an adversary, he said on Tuesday: “The idea that we would resort to a nuclear attack based on cyber is actually not supported by the document.”

He also emphasized, “We never said ‘cyber.’ The Defense One account interprets:There’s a reason for that. While cyber attacks on physical infrastructure can be very dangerous, they are unlikely to kill enough people to provoke a U.S. nuclear response”.





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Will America propose first use of nuclear weapons in response to a disabling cyber attack?

Gideon Rachman chief foreign affairs commentator for the FT writes:

“The world has been living with the threat of a nuclear apocalypse since the 1950s. Over the past decade, intelligence experts have increasingly warned about the threat of a catastrophic cyber attack.

“Now the two fears appear to have merged, with the US on the point of revising its defence policy — to allow the use of nuclear weapons, in retaliation for a devastating cyber attack”.

Business Insider adds that ‘HuffPost’ senior reporter Ashley Feinberg has published what appears to be the January 2018 draft of America’s revised, “Nuclear Posture Review”, which has been leaked to the press

It proposes to change US policy to allow the first use of nuclear weapons, in response to “attempts to destroy wide-reaching infrastructure, like a country’s power grid or communications, that would be most vulnerable to cyberweapons”.

Developed nations are now reliant on  functioning computer systems. A concerted cyber attack, targeting critical infrastructure, could cause social turmoil and mass casualties.  Security experts worry about a range of scenarios, including:

  • viruses that shut down transport infrastructure, such as air-traffic control;
  • that disrupt the operations of banks, causing the financial system to seize up
  • and interfere with power generation and distribution.

Intelligence agencies have already considered the possibilities for cyber-retaliation but introducing nuclear weapons into the equation is a policy shift which carries considerable risks. The dangers of such a move are increased as nuclear proliferation continues.

By lowering the bar to the first use of nuclear weapons, it makes nuclear war more thinkable.

A missile launch facility in North Dakota

Dave Mosher (Business Insider) points out that hundreds of US nuclear weapons are already primed to use at a moment’s notice. This dangerous Cold War-era policy means such weapons can be launched within a few minutes of detecting an adversary’s pre-emptive nuclear strike — or a false signal of one.

He stresses need for frank discussions — in our homes, at work, and with elected officials — about the reality of nuclear weapons, including their numbers, risks, cost, and imminent threat to the future of humanity, adding:

“Every weapon we dismantle is one step away from the worst kind of mishap imaginable”.





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Invitation from the Iona Community: February 17th: TRIDENT – WISE?

The Iona Community invites you to this Midlands Regional Event to hear Commander Rob Forsyth RN Rtd Saturday 17th March. 10am – 4pm at the Priory Rooms, 40 Bull Street, B4 6AF.  

Rob Forsyth commanded a Polaris Nuclear Submarine (below, on the bridge of HMS Alliance using a compass). He will explain the reasons why he is opposed to Trident (see his website ).

Cdr Forsyth on the bridge of HMS Alliance, using a compass (Express)

He has teamed up  with another accomplished anti-nuclear campaigner, Commander Robert Green (Retd) – see and Rob Green’s recent TEDx talk on nuclear deterrence (

Iona Community members have long campaigned against nuclear weapons. Canon Christopher Hall writes: “Some years ago I went to an event at the offices of the Oxford Research Group expecting to hear the results of their exploration of alternatives for the arms industry. The researcher turned us into a role play. We had to convince the CEO of an arms company that he should change track. His first comment was: ‘If you are from CND, there’s the door.’ We had to deploy arguments which would persuade him on his terms. That’s what Rob wants to do.”

In the morning Rob will speak and respond to questions. After lunch the idea is that folk put their minds and pens in gear to draft letters to MPs, papers etc.

Tickets are free. Donations are invited for the Iona Abbey Capital Appeal Fund.

To contact the organiser, email Christopher Hall <>

Details are to be found by clicking on Eventbrite:





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Nuclear weapons: Duke of Edinburgh clear – Donald Trump ambiguous: one good reason for a state visit


Lord Fenner Brockway’s private correspondence with the duke was bequeathed to the nation. It was due to remain closed until 2022, but has now been opened to the public and placed in the National Archives at Kew after a routine review.

The Duke of Edinburgh meets Burma veterans at a 1986 remembrance parade for those who gave their lives in the Burma Campaign

Last Wednesday, Marc Horne reported on the newly declassified documents which have revealed Prince Philip’s backing for nuclear disarmament in the Cold War. The Duke of Edinburgh, who saw active service in the Second World War, opposed the Cold War arms race and privately supported nuclear disarmament.

Lord Brockway, one of Labour’s most radical parliamentarians, was an anti-nuclear activist whose commemorative statue (left) may be seen outside Conway Hall in Red Lion Square Park in Holborn, London. On February 12, 1981, he wrote to Prince Philip enclosing a copy of a speech by Earl Mountbatten, the duke’s uncle.

The formerly archived address to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in May 1979 concluded: “As a military man who has given half a century of active service, I say in all sincerity that the nuclear arms race has no military purpose. Wars cannot be fought with nuclear weapons. Their existence only adds to our perils.”

The duke replied, five days later, writing: “Dear Lord Brockway. Thank you for the copy of Lord Mountbatten’s Stockholm speech. I agree with everything he said. I agree that the arms race is ridiculous.”

After delivering the inaugural Earl Mountbatten lecture at the Cambridge Union on February 9, 1981, Prince Philip clarified his position which had been misrepresented in a newspaper report. He wrote: “I said I was in favour of multilateral disarmament and the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Treaties”.

Where does Donald Trump stand?

The Arms Control Association records that in December 1967 NATO adopted a new nuclear strategy in MC 14/3 known as “flexible response” committing the alliance to respond to any aggression, short of general nuclear attack, at the level of force—conventional or nuclear—at which it was initiated. The alliance retained the option, however, to use nuclear weapons first if its initial response to a conventional attack did not prove adequate to containing the aggressor.

Two months before his election, when the “No First Use” nuclear policy was discussed in a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton,  Donald Trump appeared to rule out the idea that if he were president he would deploy “first use” of nuclear weapons in a crisis: “I would like everybody to end it, just get rid of it. But I would certainly not do first strike. I think that once the nuclear alternative happens, it’s over”. 

But then added: ““At the same time, we have to be prepared. I can’t take anything off the table”.  He earlier also said he would be “unpredictable” about how and when he might use nuclear weapons: “Well, it is an absolute last stance. And, you know, I use the word unpredictable. You want to be unpredictable.” — Interview on CBS’ “Face The Nation,” Jan. 3, 2016

And what does he mean by the world coming to its senses?

Uncertainty is at least preferable to Donald Trump emulating the gung-ho recommendations of groups such as The National Interest.  His message is in line with that of The Heritage Foundation, which approves: “Nuclear ambiguity—lack of specificity with regard to the scenarios under which the United States would use a nuclear weapon—has served as reliable deterrence over the past several decades. The policy should be continued and re-affirmed”.

In an ideal world, on a state visit, Mr Trump would listen to the Duke – mark and ‘inwardly digest’ his words . . .





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