Could robots get rid of nuclear waste? 2019-06-21T22:10:38+01:00

The UK’s nuclear waste

Robots could hold the key to finally getting rid of the UK’s nuclear waste safely.

The National Centre for Nuclear Robotics is trying to develop robots which can use machine vision – where machines are able to analyse images – and artificial intelligence to decommission millions of tonnes of radioactive waste.

Using the technology we have at the moment, the clean-up would take 120 years, require people to go into contaminated zones a million times, and cost around £234 billion.So the centre – a team of eight universities, led by the University of Birmingham – was set up last year to get robots to do it instead.

The extent of the problem

Over the next 100 years, the UK is expected to amass around 4.9 million tonnes of nuclear waste. In addition, Britain has the world’s biggest stockpile of civil plutonium (112 tonnes), which is the most toxic substance on the planet. Most of it is stored under super-tight security at the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria, but it costs an estimated £80 million a year, it constitutes an obvious and potentially catastrophic terrorist risk.

The plutonium was stockpiled to fuel nuclear reactors; the UK’s nuclear reactor programme, however, was subsequently cancelled, and there are few alternative uses for it.

To deal with nuclear waste, people have to wear air-fed plastic suits, usually with multiple layers and gloves for protection. The suits make it harder to see, hear and move, and their sheer weight makes all physical tasks harder. Yet people often need to operate heavy tools while wearing them, despite their reduced dexterity.

It’s tiring and dangerous work, limited to just a couple of hours at a time. And for every barrel of high-level waste that is decommissioned, 11 further barrels of secondary waste – such as contaminated suits and gloves – are created.

“There’s a large amount of radioactive waste that humans can’t go near at all,” NCNR co-director Professor Rustam Stolkin, head of Birmingham’s Extreme Robotics Lab, told a press event at the Royal Institution.

“And where we have technology that’s capable of doing the complex things that human workers do, we have an ethical and moral obligation to stop using humans in those roles.”

Creating a nuclear waste robot

Developing robots that can deal with nuclear waste is a significant challenge, as they need to be able to assess the waste while being able to withstand high levels of radiation, and often navigating areas where no human has been for decades. That said, progress is being made – NCNR has actually used a robot to cut contaminated steel with a laser, the first time a robot has been allowed to act autonomously inside a radioactive zone.

NCNR has also been working at Chernobyl, using drones to map radiation levels in contaminated areas and identifying a previously unknown high-radiation area. The hope is that suitable technology can soon be developed to global benefit.

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