Katherine Nowill reveals how robots are managing the fallout of nuclear power
Nuclear plants are embracing the use of robots and automation in decommissioning activities across many of the UK’s deactivated nuclear power facilities, for several reasons, which we’ll explore here.
Safety is, naturally, top of the agenda. Decommissioning a nuclear facility involves the handling of radioactive, legacy waste materials, which are, by their very nature, hazardous to human health. Robots can perform these handling tasks quickly and efficiently in areas where the radiation levels are far too high for humans to work in safely.
Efficiency is another huge selling point for robots: they can be pre-configurated to work continuously without rest, which better positions them, versus manual task management, to complete such tasks more quickly than humans. Not forsaking the health and safety benefits of using robots, government defuelling and clean-up strategies require processes that meet with decommissioning targets: efficient, fast and proven decommissioning activities that are carried out safely and with minimal impact on the environment.
Why might robots be the ideal answer to the nuclear question?
Robots are popular for the efficiency they deliver when compared with human personnel. Robots can perform repetitive tasks with high precision, which is important when working with radioactive waste materials that need to be handled carefully. Operators of decommissioned nuclear facilities need to plan for and execute decommissioning tasks safe in the knowledge that the automation, in this case the robots, through the use of periphery such as sensors, grippers, vision and control systems, can identify and measure parameters such as position – consider bin picking, moving contaminated material from one location to another, through to bolting down lids containing hazardous waste.
Cost-effectiveness is another advantage. Robots can be programmed to perform specific tasks, which reduces the need for human operators. In such niche areas, cost of labour is extremely high – comprising individuals with specific industry knowledge that also demand high salaries owing to the dangers posed when working within such precarious environments. Cost of ownership of automated cells is also often reduced when compared with manual labour.
Robots offer remote control
It’s also worth pointing out the benefits associated with remote operation. There are robotic systems that can be operated remotely, which enables workers to control their functionalities from a safe distance and avoid exposure to hazardous radioactive conditions. These take the form of joystick control and are so advanced in their ongoing development that they can be tailored to include force feedback, zoning and collision avoidance features as well as a quick tool changeover functions. As the decommissioning facilities/locations can be in receipt of a large array of contaminated waste including cables, wires, hoses, swarf, drums and containers, the robots need to be very versatile so that the operators can handle whatever type of waste is placed on the sorting table.
Using robots in decommissioning activities at nuclear facilities has proven to help to increase safety, efficiency and precision while reducing costs and worker exposure to nuclear contamination. Such technologies are also helping to provide solutions into other waste sorting environments, such as municipal waste sorting and management plants. Whilst the dangers posed to workers aren’t as severe, circular economy and sustainability goals being delivered by authorities across the UK are gradually being met thanks to automated robot processes.
Katherine Nowill is with KUKA Robotics