Researchers develop automated device to clean up nuclear sites

nuclear-cleanupRecently I wrote about a new automated device called the Row-bot, which literally feeds off of pollution in water.  The device, which was developed by the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) hopes to find a niche in cleaning up polluted waterways.

Whilst areas such as oilspills are undoubtedly worthwhile areas to target, there’s a sense that cleaning up after a nuclear accident offers a whole other level of difficulty.

That’s the challenge taken on by a British team who are working to develop a submersible, remote controlled machine that can clean-up nuclear sites such as that at Fukushima.

Nuclear clean-up

The machine is designed to assess radiation levels under water and to check the safety and stability of any material it finds within submerged areas of a nuclear site.

Whilst it has clear applications for situations such as that at Fukushima, the team also believe it could be used to speed up the removal of nuclear waste from decaying storage ponds, thus shortening the time needed to decommission nuclear sites.

The six reactors at Fukushima had to be flooded after they were damaged by the tsunami, and this underwater environment made the clean-up challenging.

The team hope that their device will allow for better detection of nuclear fuel, and subsequently better management of waste.

“A key task is the removal of the nuclear fuel from the reactors. Once this is removed and stored safely elsewhere, radiation levels fall significantly making the plant much more safer, and cheaper, to decommission,” they say.

“Our research will focus on developing a remote-operated submersible vehicle with detection instruments that will be able to identify the radioactive sources. This capability does not currently exist and it would enable clean-up of the stricken Fukushima reactors to continue.”

The work is a collaboration between researchers at Lancaster University, who have expertise in radiation detection, and the University of Manchester, who bring the remote-controlled vehicle expertise to the table.

“A key challenge with the remote-operated vehicle will be to design it so that it can fit through the small access ports typically available in nuclear facilities. These ports can be less than 100 mm in diameter, which will create significant challenges,” the team say.

The partnership is also working alongside a number of organizations in Japan, including the Japan Atomic Energy Agency and the National Maritime Research Institute of Japan.

The team hope that in addition to nuclear work, it can also be valuable in the oil and gas sector, as radioactive material can naturally appear in offshore fields.

It’s a fascinating project that’s well worth keeping an eye on.

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