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Going nuclear with robots
Published:  01 February, 2018

Robots are doing battle in an £8.5 million (US$12 million) competition to find ways to tackle radioactive hotspots in a nuclear facility.

The competition was launched last year by government agencies the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Innovate UK. The aim was to find innovative technologies that could be combined into a single process for use in facilities that are planned to be decommissioned.

The two organisations are working closely with Sellafield, a nuclear fuel reprocessing and nuclear decommissioning site on the coast of the Irish Sea in Cumbria, northwest England, where the technology would be used.

Five ideas have made it through to the final stages after being whittled down from a shortlist of 15. The newly formed consortia are each set to receive up to £1.5 million (US$2.1 million) to build prototype demonstrators for testing in a simulated radioactive environment.

Conventional approaches to working in high-hazard environments involve teams of workers, clad in protective air-fed suits, who would be restricted to working no more than a few hours at a time. The process is extremely time-consuming, costly and poses risks to the workers.

The programme is in line with a government funding priority for industrial strategy in robotics and artificial intelligence, which is looking to create a safer working world for people, improve productivity and support advances in industry and public services.

All the projects are being developed by consortia formed specifically for this competition. The participating organisations, almost 30 in total, include small businesses, large corporations and academic institutions.

The winning project – or projects – could be put to work at Sellafield’s Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant and Magnox Reprocessing Plant, which are both due to close by 2020. After closure, scores of rooms, or ‘cells’, at the facilities must be cleaned out, with the waste safely treated for packing and storage.

The robots must help to establish the contents of cells; measure the radioactivity; access spaces that have been sealed for years; cut up the contents, including large vessels and kilometres of pipework; segregate the waste; and then remove it for treatment and safe storage.

Robot designs range from large industrial giants to small ant-like devices that can work collectively and easily be replaced in the event of a breakdown.

Some projects will immerse operatives in a virtual world, where they will intuitively be able to control robots and equipment as if they were actually inside the cells.

After the first series of trials, set to take place over the next 18 months, those with potential will progress to more rigorous tests in a radioactive environment. Approval from the nuclear regulators will be required before the integrated system can be deployed at Sellafield or other NDA sites.

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Image: Steve Allen/Shutterstock