Put down the geiger counter - Handling the future of nuclear waste
There is an astonishing amount of nuclear waste that currently sits in the UK, awaiting disposal. If all of this waste was organised it would fill the cavernous expanse of Wembley Stadium, with it all equating to roughly 5 million tonnes of the stuff. This is a looming problem, and one that must be dealt with in an effective way given that an average worker disposing of one barrel of nuclear waste creates 12 more through subsequent contaminated clothing.
With this problem set firmly in the sights of experts across the country, a consortium of eight universities have come together to seek a solution. Led by the University of Birmingham, The National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR) is currently taking the steps towards providing the robotic technology to begin safely removing the waste without the risk of exacerbating the situation further. Robots possess the capabilities to not only access the areas that would require specialist equipment for workers to reach, but also come with far better capacity to work longer hours in difficult environments. The NCNR is officially made up of University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Edinburgh, Lancaster University, University of Essex, University of Lincoln, University of West England, and the Queen Mary University of London.
One of the biggest successes the NCNR have seen was through their mapping of Chernobyl with the use of truly modern drone technology. Given that the ‘Red Forest’ in Chernobyl is one of the most radioactive and hostile environments on the planet, it serves as a perfect example of the diverse and overlapping disciplines that need to come together in order for these results to be seen. With this new technology there have been new hot spots located throughout Chernobyl that were previously hidden, and it shows the quality of information we can now gather in environments far to dangerous for extended research to be done, with clear and precise 3-D imaging of the surveyed area being created.
In order for the robots to effectively work within these environments, there needs to be developments within certain aspects of the robotic processing. These areas include robotic perception, 3D modelling, artificial intelligence, and sensing & measuring technology. The developments within these areas will not only serve as beneficial to nuclear robotics, but also across other industries, providing an exciting glimpse into the potential for robotics across the scope of industries such as manufacturing, construction, and surveying.
Recognising this exceptional investment, the government has since invested £42million in the National Centre of Nuclear Robotics and their astounding work. This money goes a long way into helping the diverging arms of the project. Arms like the works Professor Rustam Stolkin, co-director of the NCNR, is doing with Artificial intelligence. His team created the advanced vision and AI control system, which would eventually turn into the first robot deployed in a radioactive environment. Alongside this is fellow co-director Professor Tom Scott, whose research focus is on ageing, corrosion, and characterisation of radioactive materials to ensure the robots are able to identify and sort specific materials within the field. This ability to intelligently recognise materials is a huge step forward, and has massive implications within industries such as recycling and waste management.
With so much incredible forward momentum being seen within robotics, these developments show a glimpse into a cleaner, greener, and more efficient future with regards to not just contaminated, nuclear waste, but the broader waste problem as well.
The Contamination Expo, taking place on the 11th and 12th September at the NEC, will be putting the best of the best with regards to nuclear decommissioning technology, services, best practises, and CPD accredited education from sector experts. If you would like to find out more, and discuss how you could get involved, whether through exhibiting or becoming a show partner, then do not hesitate to get in touch. You could play a vital role in continuing this amazing growth in a sector that is more essential for a healthy environment than ever.