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Robots are the key to future proof nuclear decommissioning


Credit: Sellafield

We have seen what can be achieved with robotics at Sellafield. Now is the time to realise their long-term potential.

Last month, over 350 attendees from across the globe joined a virtual nuclear decommissioning event and heard about the exciting world of robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) at Sellafield and across the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) group.

The Nuclear Engineering International conference included a presentation from five Sellafield Ltd representatives who highlighted how robots are creating a clean and safe environment through land, air and water.

Rav Chunilal, head of Robotics and AI at Sellafield Ltd set the scene by describing how robotics can bring benefits of cost and schedule reduction to the UK taxpayer, build innovation and strengthen collaboration with industry and academia.

He said: “The UK has a huge decommissioning challenge, and I’m delighted that robotics and AI has been recognised as one of the front runners in achieving this mission.

“We are not just looking at the challenges at the Sellafield site, but also across the NDA group’s UK sites. This is a growing field, we need to pick up the pace and embed this work into business as usual in a safe and secure manner.

 “Robots can be used to perform repetitive, difficult and time-consuming jobs remotely – freeing up our people to take on roles that are more fulfilling and rewarding, ultimately helping deliver our organisations purpose. We will focus on the long-term uses of these technologies as they continue to develop and evolve.”

Robotics Programme Manager Chris Ballard then highlighted how in water ‘we need our robots to scour our ponds, pick up and cut material and then sort the nuclear inventory sitting underneath the surface.

‘We’re currently developing ‘tetherless’ underwater robots with basic artificial intelligence, which can move around our ponds with minimal human intervention – and without the usual heavy connection that can get caught and impede operations.’

On land, Capability Development manager Chris Hope discussed how ‘we require robotic systems to remotely characterise, dismantle and treat the waste that is generated from decommissioning. 

‘We are exploring a range of solutions that could enable safer, faster, better value remediation of nuclear sites.  These include remote waste cutting facilities using industrial robots and lasers, large scale in-situ decommissioning platforms and most recently Boston Dynamics SPOT the quadruped robot’.  

We will focus on the long-term uses of these technologies as they continue to develop and evolve

Legacy Ponds ROV manager Keith Pickup explained how ‘Sellafield Ltd continues to work with our colleagues in the National Nuclear Laboratory and supply chain to develop solutions. For example, the newly developed remote operated vehicle (ROV) had to negotiate a 30-metre vertical drop in to water before travelling through a 20m inspection route around obstacles.

‘The ROV they built – with extra tough components and extra radiation shielding – has now been successfully tested in our ponds, giving a better understanding of the store condition and evidence Sellafield can use to plan future stores. It is also fully reusable and can be sent back in to check on possible degradation over time.’

Engineering & Maintenance Remote Handling Lead Peter Allport then discussed how in the air, ‘we have identified drones that can carry out detailed infrastructure inspections quickly and safely, at a reduced cost.

‘The inclusion of artificial intelligence means that they can operate independently and spot degradation much sooner. The UAV team at Sellafield has been at the forefront of developing and trialling flights beyond visual line of sight in the UK with sees.ai and the Civil Aviation Authority.’

With robots being such a fundamental part of our future, and new opportunities for their use being identified all the time, the robotics and AI team has set up a new joint venture incubator, The Robotics and AI Centre in nearby Whitehaven.

Chris Ballard added: “The Robotics and AI Centre will enable us to collaborate with our partners on innovation and R&D in solving real challenges under one roof, bring together the work being done by robots across Sellafield and build on the opportunities they offer. This will be the stepping stone to realising greater benefits for a much larger Robotics and AI Collaborative space in West Cumbria.”

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