Going where no human can: the robots closing down old nuclear power plants safely

As we saw in our previous blog, “Powering the future: the robots that laugh in the face of radiation”, nuclear power has many advantages — it produces a constant supply of electricity and fusion doesn’t release harmful greenhouse gas emissions. But it does have a major downside — nuclear waste is very difficult to throw away because it is highly radioactive.

As well as the challenges of disposing of the waste products of nuclear fission, nuclear power plants don’t last forever. After around 40 years nuclear reactors have to be shutdown, or ‘decommissioned’.

The CARMA Robot, developed by RAIN, is used for inspecting nuclear sites. Photo provided courtesy of the University of Manchester

Shutting down safely

Decommissioning a nuclear site is a complicated process as all the radioactive material has to be sorted, packaged, and disposed of. Nuclear robots are an important tool as they can be used to safely handle the radioactive material, packing it into secure containers for long term storage.

Nuclear robots can assist humans with planning the decommissioning process. For example, robots with the right sensors and navigation systems are used to create a digital map of a nuclear site showing where radioactive material is. Once an accurate map is prepared, radiation-resistant robots can be directed to safely handle, package and transport radioactive materials away from the area.

A robot mapping a room it is inspecting. The line shows the path mapped by the robot to inspect all of the floor space, scanning the blue area for radiation. Radioactive areas detected by the robot are shown in red. Digital image provided courtesy of the University of Manchester

Robot smarts

Artificial intelligence refers to computer programs that can simulate human intelligence in a machine – this may be inside a computer or on board a moving robot. AI is very important because it can give robots the ability to make decisions on their own and perform tasks without regular contact with humans. A big advantage when they are working in highly radioactive environments or squeezing through tight spaces!

Because they are designed to work in extremely harsh environments, robots developed for work with nuclear power can also be used in other areas, such as exploring the deep oceans or outer space, inspecting and repairing underground pipes, or mining useful materials from the ground.

Working well with robots

Although many nuclear robots will need to work alone, far from human contact, some will have to interact directly with human workers. It is important to research how people interact with these robots and develop systems that are safe and efficient for people to work with. These collaborative robots, or ‘co-bots’ can assist humans to move heavy objects and provide extra sensory abilities like infrared or laser vision.

The School Robot Competition 2020 is supported by the RAIN Hub, where researchers are developing autonomous robots that can navigate different environments on a nuclear site, and robotic arms that can safely process radioactive materials.

Download the RAIN hub nuclear robotics fact sheet for your class here.