Robots face nuclear challenge in European project

The project will focus on inspection and maintenance robotics and establish 13 Digital Innovation Hubs across a range of industries with the nuclear element seeking solutions for everything from mapping stacks to decontamination of irradiated items during decommissioning.

The four-year Robotics for Inspection and Maintenance (RIMA) program will look at projects that can improve productivity and safety across all areas of industry, including energy, oil & gas, water supply, transport, civil engineering and infrastructure.

In order to examine the potential viability of robotic solutions in the nuclear field, RIMA is partnering with FORATOM, with coordination by the CEA (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission). 

Robotics and new technology faces a challenge that is very specific to the nuclear industry; how to be innovative in a highly regulated industry that must factor in a process of planning, building and running a nuclear plant over a time frame of as much as 100 years. 

“You must find a balance between proposing something new on the one hand and having a standard tested technology on the other. It’s easy to build a robot. It is very difficult to license it for a nuclear project,” says Dan Serbanescu, an independent consultant on the RIMA projects. 

The most interesting projects to be presented to the program have not focused on the core technology, full-scale testing of which is very costly, but rather on collateral issues such as control in highly radioactive areas during operation and decommissioning, Serbanescu says. 

Each selected project consortium will receive up to €300,000 equity-free funding, access to acceleration services and expertise of the network of Digital Innovation Hubs, all dedicated to help the innovation and commercialization process of new I&M robotics solutions in Europe, says Nathan Paterson, a Senior Technology Advisor at FORATOM. 

The project received 121 applications during the first call, of which 10% are focused on the nuclear domain. 

Wide scope

Nuclear applications must cover a wide scope of projects, including mapping site infrastructure and health monitoring of components, supporting or inspecting nuclear equipment and waste management and decommissioning activities. 

Nuclear robotics applicants are looking at: 

• Mapping of site infrastructure
• Health monitoring of components during lifetime
• The inspection and support of equipment repair
• Robustly clean parts of the nuclear infrastructure equipment
• Waste disposal and decommissioning activities

“However, we were also open to supporting the creation of any generic support tool or assistance via a robotic or automation system that could be used by the nuclear industry,” Paterson said. 

The applications from a wide range of small and medium enterprises can take advantage of the RIMA program to take their ideas forward and progress through to the higher Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) a measurement of the technical maturity of robotic solutions, he says. 

“We’ve had a very diverse set of proposals focused on various areas within the plant,” says Serbanescu. “The interesting thing for me is the diversity of the institutions involved; there are universities, small businesses, big businesses, all connected to nuclear plants and focused on what’s next. It’s a good beginning.”

Decommissioning robotically

Decommissioning nuclear plants has become a massive industry in recent years as many of the first round of power stations, built in the 60s and 70s, reach the end of their useful lives and need to be taken down. 

However, the work is dirty and dangerous and the use of robotics is increasingly seen as a viable tool to dismantle hard to reach or highly contaminated areas. And, with a peak of decommissioning activity forecast in 2030-2035, the industry will likely not have enough people and will need robotics to handle the workload, Serbanescu warns. 

In an ongoing study by VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland, dECOmm, researchers turned to the company Delete, for which industrial cleanings are a large part of its business, to look at demolition robots for the decommissioning market. 

Fully autonomous solutions are still unlikely to be sufficiently advanced to be considered safe, so many projects are expected to focus on semi-autonomous robots which are manipulated and controlled by operators using virtual and augmented reality techniques.

Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is already looking at technology developed by Createc, which uses robotics together with real-time virtual reality, for the decommissioning of the Sellafield nuclear site. 

According to Paterson, the program saw several submitted projects with concrete proposals on how to meet specific challenges in the decommissioning sphere. 

“We were looking for solutions how these projects could support such activities as cleaning or reducing the size of standard and irradiated components, the movement of the inventory of radioactive waste items within specified working areas or other dismantling operations of components such as cutting, reshaping, etc,” he said. 

Robotics can also help map complex structures, monitor the health of equipment which could lead to maintenance recommendations or provide data on key parameters in hazardous or confined areas, take samples, inspections and repairs in remote areas as well as clean surfaces, long-term storage pools or any other restricted areas and decontaminating irradiated items or dismantling and reducing the size of waste streams.

By Paul Day