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Ventilation tower at Sellafield site

UK and Japan partner on new nuclear decommissioning tech

Image credit: Sellafield Ltd

The UK and Japan are working together to develop new technologies for the nuclear industry, including long-reach robotic arms to assist with the decommissioning of retired nuclear power plants.

This £12m 'LongOps' project is supported by UK Research and Innovation, the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) – which owns Japan’s disabled Fukushima plant – in equal parts over four years.

The research collaboration will bring together scientists and engineers to work on solutions for safely and efficiently decommissioning retired nuclear facilities like Fukushima. Decommissioning these sites is an extremely complex and costly process that can take decades from start to finish.

Long-reach robotic arms developed through this research partnership could play a significant role in speeding up parts of the decommissioning process while minimising risk to human health. These robots will be deployed at the Sellafield site in Cumbria and at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.

“It has been almost a decade since the Fukushima Daiichi (1F) accident on 11 March 2011,” said Akira Ono, chief decommissioning officer at TEPCO. “TEPCO’s 1F decontamination and decommissioning was carried out initially on an emergency response basis, but we now will be entering the stage of taking on challenges in unchartered territory such as fuel debris retrieval.

“I recognise that the robotics and remote-control technology is one of the most important key success factors for [this] project.”

Some robots have previously been deployed at the Fukushima site. Snake-like and scorpion-like robots intended for exploring the site struggled to navigate the environment and were abandoned inside.

Another major ambition of the project is to develop and deploy sophisticated digital twin technology: models of a physical system which allows for detailed data analysis. Digital twins can be used to identify potential problems and carry out maintenance most effectively. In this case, the digital twins will be used to demonstrate how machines on site are manipulated in real-time by a remote operator.

The collaboration will also enable the UK and Japan to continue pursuing research into nuclear fusion: the process at the core of stars which unleashes energy through the fusing of atomic nuclei. Many hope that sustaining nuclear fusion on Earth – which requires extreme temperatures and pressures to overcome the repulsive electrostatic forces between nuclei – could provide renewable zero-carbon energy in the future.

Technologies developed through the LongOps project can be applied to upgrading, maintaining, and dismantling fusion devices, such as the Joint European Torus and – eventually – the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.

The government hopes that the research collaboration will result in employment opportunities, advances in “fusion-adjacent” technologies, and the upskilling of the UK and Japanese scientific and engineering sectors.

“To unlock the amazing potential of nuclear power, it’s critical that the UK works hand in hand with international partners to safely decommission nuclear sites while backing pioneering research into fusion, which could offer a limitless source of clean energy,” said the science minister Amanda Solloway. “This innovative research alliance with Japan will ensure we share our expertise in robotics to address complex challenges such as nuclear decommissioning, while helping to secure highly skilled jobs across the country as we build back better from the pandemic.”

 

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