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Oldbury nuclear power station

Government calls for satellite tech to assist nuclear decommissioning

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The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) – which oversees the decommissioning of the UK’s old nuclear power plants – is partnering with the UK Space Agency (UKSA) on a public challenge to investigate whether images captured by orbiting satellites could prove useful for nuclear decommissioning.

Many countries, including the UK and France, plan to include nuclear fission as a major source of electricity in their carbon neutral energy mixes. Much of the expense of nuclear power is associated with the long and technically complex process of dismantling and cleaning up the facilities, while ensuring that radioactive materials are safely contained. In 2013, the NDA estimated that decommissioning the 19 nuclear sites (existing at the time) would cost at least £100bn.

Seeking to provide useful insights for decommissioning projects, the UK government has launched a ‘Nuclear Decommissioning Space Data Challenge’.

The challenge, which is aimed at UK start-ups and other small businesses, calls for detailed proposals for how satellite technologies could support decommissioning efforts, such as through inspections of difficult-to-access areas and counting and monitoring bulk containers.

In a blog post written in December 2017, NDA Research Director Rick Short explained how satellite technology could prove valuable to nuclear decommissioning projects. Satellite imaging data is already used extensively to monitor environmental change (such as to monitor the health of forests, air quality, or populations of threatened species) and could be used similarly to monitor changes at decommissioning sites, such as flow of groundwater or the potential impact of waste products such as metal ions on certain species.

The NDA will be working with the UKSA on this challenge, including sponsoring the £10,000 cash prize for the winning concept or prototype. Short-listed applicants will be invited to demonstrate their ideas at a Dragon’s Den style event run by the UKSA in January 2020.

“Remote monitoring is just one example of the uses of satellite technology that could benefit the nuclear sector,” said Sara Huntingdon, Head of Innovation at the NDA. “There are so many opportunities here which we could explore, and I’m absolutely delighted that the NDA is the very first public sector organisation to collaborate with the UK Space Agency on this challenge.”

Melanie Brownridge, NDA Technology and Innovation Director, added: “We’re committed to encouraging the development of ideas for decommissioning and to working with other industrial sectors on the exchange or adaptation of technologies.”

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