How robots are making nuclear facilities safer

Thursday, 09 November, 2023

How robots are making nuclear facilities safer

Sellafield, a UK-based nuclear site, has increasingly made use of robots to enhance safety for its workers.

‘Spot’ the robot dog is now a familiar sight at the facility, which has a focus on decommissioning and plays a vital role in ensuring the safe and responsible management of nuclear facilities. Spot is tasked with duties such as the inspection of buildings and equipment, and the sorting and segregation of wastes.

The robot’s capabilities were recently shared with industry colleagues during a live demonstration at one of the site's oldest buildings, Calder Hall. Like many buildings built in the 1950s, Calder Hall has areas where asbestos is a known hazard, making them inaccessible for humans and therefore difficult to decommission.

AtkinsRéalis, supported with some of the Sellafield remote operated vehicles (ROV) department’s equipment and documentation, utilised Spot to conduct a livestreamed inspection — via the robot’s on-board camera — and build an accurate understanding of the condition of the area and how best to clean it up.

The ROV team had previously used a LiDAR laser scanning device on an ROV in a high radiation environment, allowing the robot to navigate and build a 3D image of the hazardous area, thus removing the need for humans to enter.

“Since the introduction of this technology we’ve really been at the forefront of testing it and adjusting it to our needs, and are now leaders in the nuclear industry for applying it,” said Calvin Smye, ROV equipment engineer.

“We’ve seen supply chain colleagues deploying the same technology at other nuclear sites following our success.”

These robots are now being used across other NDA sites in the UK, including at Dounreay in Scotland, demonstrating how learning is being shared to deliver better outcomes.

The ROV team has also used an IPEK crawler robot — commonly used for sewer pipe inspections — to inspect the structural integrity of pipework from up to 250 metres away.

In addition, Sellafield is exploring the use of ROVs to detect potentially dangerous gases in work areas before humans are sent in, much like the canaries used in coal mines over 200 years ago. It recently conducted its first trial using a dosimeter designed by the Radiometrics Systems Group.

“If we can do one task that removes the need for a person to enter a hazardous area, that’s a win,” said Deon Bulman, ROV equipment program lead.

Image caption: ‘Spot’ with LiDAR. Image courtesy of Engineering Centre of Excellence.

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