UK and Japan tackle legacy of Fukushima and Sellafield with robotics collaboration

Dangerous radioactive material from Fukushima and Sellafield will be retrieved by robots thanks to a new robotics collaboration between the UK and Japan. The £12m LongOps project is also aimed at automating aspects of nuclear fusion energy production, alongside decommissioning goals.

The four-year research robotics collaboration will use long-reach robotic arms to make decommissioning faster and safer at Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan and at Sellafield in the UK.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster saw a triple meltdown, three hydrogen explosions and the release of radioactive material after the loss of reactor core cooling following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

The Sellafield site in Cumbria is used for nuclear fuel reprocessing and storage, as well as ongoing decommissioning of previous reactors and facilities. There were 21 serious incidents of off-site radiological releases at Sellafield between 1950 and 2000, according to a paper in the Journal of Radiological Protection.

The new project will be led by the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (Race) facility. It will be funded equally by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco).

The collaborators hope it will deliver new robotic capabilities with global potential, as well as creating employment opportunities, advancing ‘fusion-adjacent’ technologies, and boosting scientific and engineering capabilities.

The decommissioning of legacy nuclear facilities and fusion facilities are complex large-scale projects that are time-intensive to accomplish safely. Using robotics allows teams to keep human workers out of danger.

Akira Ono, Tepco’s chief decommissioning officer, said: “It has been almost a decade since the Fukushima Daiichi (1F) accident on 11 March 2011.

“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 uncharted territory, such as fuel debris retrieval (FDR).”

He added: “Robotics and remote-control technology is one of the most important key success factors for the FDR project. I believe LongOps R&D will contribute a tremendous support to this FDR project.”

Developments from LongOps will also be applied to the upgrading, maintenance and dismantling of fusion devices, such as the Joint European Torus (Jet), once their lifespans have ended.

Another major feature of the LongOps decommissioning programme will be deployment of digital twin technology, to enable highly detailed analysis of data and forecasting of potential maintenance and operational issues. The collaborators said it would help optimise operations, improve productivity, and give the ability to test in the virtual world before developing real world applications.

Adrian Simper, group strategy and technology director at the NDA, said: “The NDA group is a world leader in decommissioning – our high hazard challenges require innovative and efficient solutions. Robotics offers us new ways to tackle our complex work safely, securely and cost effectively. This unique international collaboration allows us to pool expertise and experience from Japan, working together and investing in cutting edge ways to find solutions to our shared problems and benefit our clean up mission.”

Andrew Tyrer, from Robots for a Safer World at UKRI, said: “This landmark international collaboration between the UK and Japan will spearhead significant progress into the complex challenge of nuclear decommissioning. That these nuclear decommissioning operations were selected as the focus of UK-Japanese robotics collaboration, including UK engineers developing technology for use in Fukushima, highlights the UK’s world-leading strength in this sector.”

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