Powering the future: the robots that laugh in the face of radiation

We talked in our last blog about robots that can go into extreme environments where the conditions are harmful or toxic to humans. This includes exploring the deepest ocean trenches and the far reaches of space, but humans have also created their own extreme environments. One of the most extreme is a nuclear power plant.

Globally, about 10% of electricity is generated at nuclear power plants, which use a chemical reaction called nuclear fission to release energy. Nuclear power has big advantages over burning coal, oil, or gas to produce electricity. Fission is comparatively cheap, it will never run out, and it creates no carbon dioxide gas emissions, which could clog the atmosphere and lead to climate change.

Because of this, people often call Nuclear energy ‘green’ or ‘renewable’. But nuclear fission uses fuels like Uranium and Plutonium, which make nuclear reactors very dangerous environments for humans to work in, and produce nuclear waste that can be difficult to get rid of.

Danger: Radioactive

Radioactive molecules are unstable. Over time they slowly break down into smaller elements, giving off photons in the process — this is radiation. Radiation is dangerous to living organisms because the photons damage DNA and can kill cells.

We are all exposed to tiny amounts of radiation every day, emitted by the sun, rocks and natural gases. This is known as background radiation and it is harmless. It is also safe to be exposed very briefly to higher levels, such as when we have an X-ray at the hospital. But if we are exposed to high levels for more than a few minutes, it can make us very sick.

Yet many people working in nuclear power plants have to deal with radioactive materials all the time. So, they use special suits and lead-lined gloves to protect their bodies when they are handling radioactive substances. But the protective suits are uncomfortable and slow people down, so scientists are designing robots that can take over these hazardous tasks.

Robots are less affected by radiation because they’re made of steel and silicon, rather than living cells full of DNA!

Nuclear power plants use fusion to generate electricity.
(CC-BY 3.0 Image from Wikimedia Commons)

With great power comes great responsibility

Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste as a biproduct of nuclear fission, and this waste needs to be safely disposed of to prevent harm to humans and wildlife. Toxic nuclear waste can’t be allowed to leak into the air or water supplies! Unfortunately, many countries currently have a bit of a backlog. For example, the UK has almost 5 million tons of nuclear waste, which scientists think might take as long as 100 years to clean up.

Some stages of the clean-up are so dangerous that humans can’t do them, even with protective clothing, so disposing of all this waste will be impossible without help from some extreme robots.

The School Robot Competition 2020 is supported by the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics in Birmingham, which is researching new robots that can enter these extreme environments. Some of these robots have wheels, others walk on legs, there are even drones that fly overhead to scan and sense radioactive environments. They are also developing robotic arms that can safely grab and move radioactive materials far away from humans.

Download the NCNR nuclear robotics factsheet for your class here.