Innovating a solution to the UK’s nuclear waste legacy

Jason Ford - News Editor, The EngineerJason Ford, news editor

There was a point during BBC 4’s Britain’s Nuclear Secrets: Inside Sellafield when the scale and complexity of dealing with certain types of nuclear waste was made clear.

One of the site’s ponds was home to spent nuclear fuel, isotope cartridges and reactor components that had been in situ for 50 years. The plan was to remove it, encapsulate it in concrete and then put it into steel containers.

But moving waste of a certain vintage is fraught with hazards and during the broadcast workers at the plant demonstrated to the show’s presenter Prof. Jim Al-Khalili how ROVs and robotic arms were being employed to investigate the pond’s contents and how they might best be removed.

Nuclear waste management and decommissioning is high on the agenda at Civil Nuclear Showcase 2017, which takes place in London between February 28 and March 1. It is also at the forefront of a funding round from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Innovate UK, who are making £3m available to businesses that can develop technologies that will help dismantle facilities at the Sellafield nuclear site, which shifts into full-scale decommissioning and waste management by 2020.

Such businesses have until April 26, 2017 to submit their ideas to the Integrated Innovation for Nuclear Decommissioning competition, which is looking for equipment that can reduce the risks for workers, reduce timescales, costs, and identify how to deal with the radioactive waste. Ideas that can be adapted from other industrial sectors are said to be particularly welcome, as are collaborations between smaller businesses.

According to a joint statement, “robotics, virtual imaging, autonomous systems, sensors and detectors are all likely to be required as highly radioactive facilities are cleaned up and taken apart by a workforce that has to operate from a safe distance.”

Ideas generated and taken forward may have utility beyond Sellafiled at other NDA/nuclear sites and in industries that present their own unique safety challenges such as oil and gas or defence.

The organisers add that the competition is split into stages with initial funding available to develop a business case, followed by the second stage leading to demonstrations in a non-radioactive environment.

“If this demonstration is successful, there is the potential for progress to deployment and demonstration in a radioactive facility at Sellafield,” they said.

Full details can be found at SBRI funding competition: integrated innovation for nuclear decommissioning. BBC 4’s Britain’s Nuclear Secrets: Inside Sellafiled is still available on BBC iPlayer. Civil Nuclear Showcase 2017 takes place at the Millennium Hotel, with full details here.