Digital technologies to clean up outdated nuclear plants in UK

Posted on 23 Aug 2017 by Jonny Williamson

In a £3m competition, run by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, 15 ideas have been shortlistet to find new digital  ways of cleaning up one of the UK’s largest nuclear hazards.

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The competition, which is being run by the NDA, and the UK government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, is awarding an initial £750,000.

As reported by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the shortlisted entries start fleshing out their concepts on how to safely dismantle a large number of highly radioactive rooms or ‘cells’ at Europe’s most complex nuclear site, Sellafield in Cumbria, with the help of digital technologies.

Many of the entries have come from companies that have never worked in the nuclear industry before, and the firms now have around 3 months to develop their ideas for a chance to move on to the next stage.

Melanie Brownridge, the NDA’s head of technology, said: “This competition is an amazing opportunity for creative, forward-thinking and innovative companies to collaborate and come up with cutting-edge solutions for cleaning up some of the UK’s most complex nuclear sites.”

The competition, which is being run by the NDA, and the UK government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, is awarding an initial £750,000 to a shortlist of 15 newly formed consortia to help them develop their ideas.

Full details remain under commercial wraps but more will be revealed when the winners are picked at the end of the year and begin to build prototypes, supported by the remaining funds.

Over the next few years several major plants at Sellafield will come to the end of their operational life, such as the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) and Magnox Reporcessing Plants, which are used to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from power stations across the UK and the rest of the world.

This will mark the start of an important decommissioning challenge to deal with a number of highly radioactive ‘cells’ containing a complex network of contaminated pipes, vessels and several miles of steelwork. The competition set out to find and fund technology that will clean up the ‘cells’ as safely, quickly and cost-effectively as possible whilst minimising risks to the workforce.

The winning technologies will need to find ways of safely accessing the cells, surveying the contents, cleaning them out and putting the radioactive waste into packages for safe storage. The proposals feature the use of leading-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robots, drones, lasers and specialised remote sensors and detectors.

Although initially focused on Sellafield, the winning ideas could be used to clean up the other nuclear sites owned by the NDA, which date back to the earliest days of the UK nuclear industry.