Australian technology helping safeguard used nuclear fuel

27 January 2023

Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has developed a new technology that could play a key role in safeguarding used nuclear fuels. The prototype Robotized Cherenkov Viewing Device (RCVD) is a small robot. In tests it navigated a used fuel pond and provided inspectors with real time data that could be used for safeguards verification. “The test demonstrates that autonomous robots could soon assist with field measurement and analysis of spent nuclear fuel, providing greater protection for human workers,” said Technical Programme Manager, Rosie Attwell.

The RCVD was created through a collaboration between CSIRO’s data and digital specialist arm, Data61, Hungarian robotics company Datastart, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It is a floating device that runs autonomy-enabling software designed by Data61. It has completed a successful test in an operating nuclear power facility in South America, CSIRO noted.

“Inspectors currently operate above the pond on a suspended platform, sometimes in 40-degree Celsius heat, using a handheld device to identify hundreds of used nuclear fuel rods, Attwell explained. “This new technology will remove humans from harm’s way and ensure the rate of safety inspections matches that of nuclear material.”

The RCVD autonomously navigates a path across the pond while updating a real-time map with footage and data of the fuel assemblies.

It analyses each assembly’s position and unique signature to detect if fuel has been removed or replaced. Information is communicated back to staff members.

It uses CSIRO’s Wildcat SLAM (Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping) technology, which achieved less than 1% deviation from reality when CSIRO's Data61's Robotics & Autonomous Systems Group took part participate in the three-year DARPA Subterranean challenge. The group was one of seven teams to receive up to $4.5m in funding from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to compete in the Challenge. The team took second place in the final challenge in 2021.

CSIRO Project Engineer, Thomas Hines, said RCVD is now being fine-tuned to improve the robot’s ability to navigate and take detailed photographs. “When fuel is inspected manually by a human, they move the camera to a position where the soft gradient of light around the fuel is centred on the centre of the fuel assembly. This is challenging to perform autonomously but our team expects to accomplish it,” he said. The prototype will continue to be tested, with plans for the device to be outfitted with computer vision to enhance autonomy in the next phase of development.

Dimitri Finker, a Technology Foresight Specialist at IAEA, said using an autonomous system will reduce the burden of carrying in-field verifications for the facility operator and for the Agency. “It also significantly improves the quality of the data collected. The instrument can be optimally positioned close to the fuel, leading to more consistent and accurate measurements,” he added.

Image: CSIRO team members with the device (courtesy of CSIRO)

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