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UK to introduce robots and AI for nuclear decommissioning

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With the steady growth of the UK’s nuclear decommissioning industry, the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR) is researching new ways of safely removing nuclear waste, using machine vision, artificial intelligence and advanced robots.

NCNR is a consortium of 8 universities, led by the University of Birmingham, who are developing advanced robotics and artificial intelligence specifically to aid the most dangerous parts of nuclear decommissioning
(Image via NCNR)

According to the NCNR, using current technology the clean-up of nuclear waste generated since 1950 would take around 120 years and require one million human entries into contaminated zones. The total cost would total approximately £234 billion. 

The organisation’s mission, therefore, is to develop robotic solutions that can characterise, handle and decommission this waste.

“There’s a large amount of radioactive waste that humans can’t go near at all,” said Professor Rustam Stolkin, co-director of the NCNR.

“And where we have technology that’s now becoming capable to do the complex things that human workers do, we have an ethical and moral obligation to stop using humans in these roles. We don’t send Victorian children up chimneys any more. It’s not socially acceptable.”

NCNR's robotics will autonomously characterise and safely dispose of nuclear material and equipment
(Image via NCNR)

Because of the specificity of each cleanup task, robotics have rarely been used in this field in the past. Unlike in other industries where robotics are commonplace - such as manufacturing - there’s no structure in place that would allow a universal robot design that can be used in different areas. 

A human worker can easily characterise different types of waste object and deal with them accordingly, but for a robot this will require advanced AI and machine learning for it to be able to operate autonomously. 

“Autonomous robotic grasping is the current forefront frontier in international robotics and AI research,” said Stolkin. “You can’t buy a robot from an industrial robot manufacturer that can do that stuff. Well, we buy the robots but we make them behave in clever ways.” 

The protective equipment that workers must wear for nuclear cleanup can make the job even more difficult. Autonomous robotics will make the job much safer, faster and more efficient
(Image via NCNR)

NCNR’s robotics will be built to withstand high levels of radiation. For a human worker, these environments require air-fed plastic suits, with multiple layers of protection and gloves - making it difficult as well as dangerous to dismantle and clean up heavy equipment. 

Current developments include robots that can grab and lift heavy objects and a design that can cut contaminated steel with a laser. 

Developing and operating the robots is expected to become a major industry in itself, with many more advanced designs required as the nuclear decommissioning sector continues to grow.

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UK to introduce robots and AI for nuclear decommissioning - Time to read 3 min
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