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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