'Humans can't go near it': how the Extreme Robotics Lab could solve our nuclear waste problem

Joseph Flaig

The Extreme Robotics Lab is the home of the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics
The Extreme Robotics Lab is the home of the National Centre for Nuclear Robotics

The UK is awash with nuclear waste. Almost five million tonnes of contaminated material requires safe disposal – that could take 120 years and cost £234 billion using existing technology.

Thankfully, the University of Birmingham-led National Centre for Nuclear Robotics (NCNR) has launched the Extreme Robotics Lab, a new £3 million facility to improve the expensive, time-consuming and extremely dangerous process of nuclear clean-up. 

“There is a large amount of waste that is so radioactive, humans can’t go near it at all,” said NCNR director professor Rustam Stolkin, at an event hosted by the Royal Institution in London last month. “It has to stay on the other side of a thick concrete wall. The only solution is handling machinery.”

Although people might think of the nuclear sector as high-tech, it is actually “profoundly un-roboticised”, said Stolkin. “There is almost nothing at any nuclear plant… that you would recognise as a robot.”

That extends to decommissioning, he said. An ageing workforce – the average is 55 years old – of nuclear disposal experts wear “cumbersome, claustrophobic” suits and up to seven pairs of gloves while operating heavy cutting and lifting machinery. The UK’s clean-up could require one million visits to radioactive environments, each barrel of cleaned-up nuclear waste generating an extra 11 barrels of waste through irradiation of protective clothing. 

Getting a grip

To reduce human risk, increase efficiency and tackle previously untouchable waste, roughly 20 researchers at the 1,000m2 Extreme Robotics Lab are developing technology, including robotic vision, self-healing electronics, autonomous navigation and human-robot interfaces.

Advanced robotic manipulation is a key technology expected to gain ground in the traditionally conservative sector in the coming years. The Royal Institution presentation included a Kuka Robotics gripping arm from the lab. A volunteer used a controller to manipulate the arm, while the machine assessed potential gripping angles for objects below and adjusted itself for the best angles. Such technology could reduce worker stress and “cognitive load”, while making the removal process quicker and more efficient, said Stolkin.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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