Welcome to the world of remote controlled nuclear waste

Published: 03 Apr 2014

Nuclear engineers are pushing innovation again – this time with remote controlled vehicles to handle nuclear waste.

Nuclear Engineering Services (NES) has been working alongside the Sellafield nuclear power station operators to launch an innovative new idea of managing nuclear waste. The Wolverhampton based organisation had the idea of using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to extract and retrieve intermediate level waste. The nuclear waste, currently in pile fuel cladding silos, was put into containers and stored in other, purpose-built facilities on the site. The original silos were built more than 60 years ago and were Sellafield’s first ever storage facility for irradiated fuel cladding.

The site started life as a storage facility for cladding from the original Windscale power station. The facility grew soon afterwards, as irradiated fuel cladding from the Magnox reactor sites (Calder Hall and Chapelcross) was also transferred over, until it reached capacity in the early 1960s.

The removal of the waste is an obvious challenge and due to the toxic nature, anything which streamlines the process and takes human contact away is beneficial. The NES showcased their ROV techniques at a demonstration had at their own facility at Beckermet, Cumbia, a few miles from Sellafield.

The demonstration was formed of a scaled down version of the silo compartment, which saw the use of two ROVs that were approximately half the size of the final product. They were able to successfully perform all the duties required of them and kept all the nuclear engineers and operators at a safe distance from the waste.

There were two varieties on offer. One was a standard unit that would be ready to go right out of the box. While the function is still sophisticated, it didn’t have the scope of the second model. This version had a different control system, which featured a ‘teach and repeat’ function. This programmable movement could lead to a reduction in operator fatigue during the long and repetitive process. Also of note is the adaptable end attachment, which has the possibility for being switched out for multiple tasks – or to adapt to the changing state of nuclear waste as it breaks down or erodes.

The technical demo allowed a hands on review to the target market at Sellafield, and was an example of the larger trend for ROV that has improved many other industry sectors globally. The nuclear operators were able to try the ROV systems out first hand, under the supervision of the NES health and safety co-ordinator, Callum Nelson. Other visitors at the demo included guests from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Jack DeVine, Sellafield’s Chief Decommissioning Officer said; “A bridge has been crossed in terms of time, safety, and commercially available equipment, allowing us to confront real material sooner, to prevent future delays.”


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