EDF Energy on 18 July has launched a competition aimed at finding new ways of inspecting and monitoring its UK NPPs, offering successful projects funding of up to GBP10,000 ($13,000). The deadline for applications is 28 September. Successful projects are to start in January next year. The competition is open to businesses of any size, from start-ups to large firms, but they must be UK companies. EDF Energy is funding the competition, but it is working with Innovate UK to run it. Innovate UK is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills.

EDF Energy operates 14 advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs), which provide about 18% of the UK’s electricity. The company said it had designed its R&D programme to show how it will extend the operating periods of these reactors in a safe and cost-effective way. "Access to accurate data on the state of the different critical components is vital," it said. Compared with other major reactor design, AGRs have high temperature operating conditions, EDF Energy noted. This can be up to 600°C in some parts of the reactors. "One of the life-limiting factors of AGRs is ageing due to the material degradation (creep, fatigue) of various components," it said.

EDF Energy can inspect several of the components for signs of damage. They can also provide a link between damage predictions and the actual plant condition, but most of the components are within the reactor or boiler sections of the AGR. This makes inspections difficult, the company noted.

Remote camera inspections and manned vessel entries are often used to inspect these components, but the quality of these inspections is variable, and most of the time only visual inspections are possible. Common non-destructive testing techniques can provide extra information but EDF uses these less often.

EDF Energy is looking for innovative solutions for "new manipulators for access"; new probes and techniques for inspection; remote sampling techniques; and solutions to decommissioning challenges. Specifically, it wants a device that can inspect boiler tubes remotely. It may also be able to navigate congested areas in enclosed spaces, EDF Energy said, and in some cases it may need to steer around bifurcations.

It is also interested in a large range of inspection parameters – geometrical measurement, for example tube wall metal loss or defect geometries; and material characterisation for example carburisation effects, creep and fatigue damage, inter-granular attack, deposition and pitting in austenitic stainless steel or 9% chrome steel.

On remote sampling techniques, EDF Energy said extraction of samples allows accurate characterisation of global degradation mechanisms and material loss and assists in validating inspection results from non-destructive methods.

Decommissioning challenges vary from the inspection of ponds to remote sampling of radioactive environments, such as the graphite core, it said.