Robotics at Cumbria's Sellafield nuclear site

3rd November 2023
Paige West

Robots at Sellafield are contributing significantly to the site's operations, with insights being shared across the nuclear sector.

The employment of robotics is becoming a regular feature at the West Cumbrian site, enhancing safety, increasing speed, and reducing costs, thereby providing valuable insights for other UK nuclear sites.

The integration of novel and progressive robotic technologies is reshaping the approach to site clean-up and decommissioning tasks. The Remote Operated Vehicles (ROV) department, located at the Engineering Centre of Excellence in Cleator Moor, is leading efforts to customise standard equipment and software to meet various on-site requirements.

A notable innovation by the department has been the world's first deployment of a LiDAR laser scanning device on an ROV within a high-radiation zone. This allows the robot to autonomously navigate and construct a three-dimensional representation of the hazardous area, eliminating the need for human intervention.

Calvin Smye, an ROV equipment engineer, stated: "We utilise readily available components, enhancing them with additional features such as LiDAR sensors and radiation monitors to meet our specific organisational needs. With the adoption of this technology, we have become pioneers in the nuclear sector for its application. Following our example, we have observed peers in the supply chain implementing this technology at other nuclear facilities."

Spot, the robot dog, is now a common presence at Sellafield, undertaking tasks ranging from structural inspections to waste sorting and segregation. Spot's capabilities were highlighted to industry peers during a live demonstration at Calder Hall, one of the site's oldest structures. Given the presence of asbestos and other hazards from the 1950s construction, areas of Calder Hall are otherwise inaccessible for humans and challenging to decommission.

AtkinsRéalis has collaborated with the ROV team, utilising Spot's onboard camera to stream inspections live, thereby gaining a precise understanding of the condition of these areas for effective clean-up.

This technology is not limited to Sellafield; it is now being applied at other Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) sites in the UK, such as Dounreay in Scotland, exemplifying how shared knowledge fosters improved outcomes.

Beyond robot dogs, the team has also successfully employed an IPEK crawler robot, traditionally used for sewer inspections, to assess the condition of pipework remotely. Sellafield is also investigating the use of ROVs for detecting dangerous gases in work areas, reminiscent of the role canaries played in coal mines. A recent trial utilised a dosimeter developed by the Radiometrics Systems Group.

Deon Bulman, the ROV equipment programme lead, remarked: "The rapid integration of new technologies at Sellafield is testament to the tangible benefits they offer. The technology serves to assist personnel, not to supplant them, with the benefits becoming apparent to those who adopt it."

The application of ROVs not only enhances safety but also presents considerable cost efficiencies and operational improvements. Rav Chunilal, the head of robotics and artificial intelligence, commented: "Sellafield's employment of ROVs signifies a key advancement in our safety and efficiency ethos. These advanced robots facilitate the remote access of perilous and challenging environments, safeguarding human operators, and offering savings in both time and costs for maintenance and inspections. By adopting these remote technologies, Sellafield is at the vanguard of initiating a transformative era in the nuclear industry, establishing a benchmark for decommissioning excellence globally."

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