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Robots work at Sellafield nuclear site

by Pieter Werner

Robots are playing an increasingly prominent role in operations at the Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria, with their utilization aimed at enhancing safety, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. While these robotic advancements are gaining traction at Sellafield, it is essential to note that they are also providing valuable insights for the wider nuclear industry across the UK.

Sellafield’s remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) department, situated at the Engineering Centre of Excellence in Cleator Moor, is actively engaged in adapting standard equipment and software to cater to various on-site requirements. One notable achievement is the world’s first use of a LiDAR laser scanning device on an ROV in a high radiation environment. This innovation enables the robot to navigate and create a 3D image of hazardous areas, eliminating the need for human intervention.

Calvin Smye, an ROV equipment engineer, highlighted the department’s approach of enhancing off-the-shelf technology with custom payloads. He explained, “Since the introduction of this technology, we’ve really been at the forefront of testing it and adjusting it to our needs and are now leaders in the nuclear industry for applying it.”

Spot, the robot dog, has become a familiar presence at Sellafield, undertaking tasks ranging from building inspections to waste segregation. Industry colleagues were given the opportunity to witness Spot’s capabilities during a live demonstration at Calder Hall, one of the site’s oldest buildings, where asbestos poses a known hazard. AtkinsRéalis, with support from the ROV team, utilized Spot to conduct a livestreamed inspection and gain insights into the area’s condition, aiding in cleanup planning.

These robotic innovations are not confined to Sellafield alone. They are being deployed at other sites within the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) network in the UK, including Dounreay in Scotland, emphasizing the sharing of knowledge and best practices across the industry.

Additionally, Sellafield is exploring the use of ROVs for detecting potentially hazardous gases in work areas, a modern iteration of the canaries once used in coal mines. This endeavor recently included a trial utilizing a dosimeter designed by the Radiometrics Systems Group.

Deon Bulman, ROV equipment programme lead, emphasized that technology adoption is accelerating at Sellafield, with its primary purpose being to support, rather than replace, human workers. He stated, “If we can do one task that removes the need for a person to enter a hazardous area, that’s a win.”

Apart from enhancing safety, ROVs are also contributing to significant cost savings and operational efficiencies. Rav Chunilal, head of robotics and artificial intelligence at Sellafield, described these developments as a “significant milestone” in the site’s commitment to safety and efficiency, highlighting the ability of cutting-edge robots to access dangerous areas remotely, thus protecting human workers from harm while reducing maintenance and inspection costs.

In conclusion, the use of robots at Sellafield is steadily reshaping the nuclear industry by improving safety, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. While these technological advancements are proving to be game-changers, they are also being shared across the industry to enhance operations and safety at nuclear sites throughout the UK.

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