A new facility to accelerate the use of robotics in the UK nuclear power industry was announced on 5 November, for both decommissioning and new builds. The contract, which will support robotics R&D from four UK locations, was published by the centre for Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE), which is part of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA).
The National Nuclear User Facility for Hot Robotics (NNUF-HR) will support the UK by applying robotics to develop cheaper and faster nuclear-decommissioning systems, nuclear new-builds, advanced modular fission reactors and future fusion power plants. The facility, due to open in 2023, will be based in the following locations:
- Remote Applications for Challenging Environments (RACE) at UKAEA, Culham, Oxfordshire
- The University of Bristol’s Fenswood facility
- The National Nuclear Laboratory’s Workington Laboratory
- The University of Manchester’s Dalton Cumbria facility
As well as being able to build on existing infrastructure and relationships, the chosen locations are suitably placed to access key nuclear sites and related organisations. The National Nuclear User Facility (NNUF) was launched in 2013 as part of the government’s Nuclear Industrial Strategy to provide the UK nuclear research and development community with better equipment and facilities. The NNUF-HR will provide opportunities for academia and industry to utilise cutting-edge equipment and expertise. Universities and industrial partners will be able to book both space and equipment in the facility for supported experiments, demonstrations and technology certification.
Users will be able to hire-out ‘containerised’ robotic solutions to facilitate development, integration and testing of new capabilities, control algorithms and sensory add-on. Nick Sykes, head of decommissioning at RACE, said: “NNUF-HR gives users the tools they need to demonstrate what is possible and increase the routine use of robotics in nuclear and other highly hazardous environments.”
Construction has already started on the extension of the RACE facility in Culham by Midas Construction. When complete, the project will provide open-plan office spaces, meeting rooms, ‘quiet pods’ and multi-purpose areas. RACE will use the extension to continue its expansion following rapid growth since the launch of its first building in 2016.
UKAEA is focused on developing a fusion power plant, which will be remotely operated, and RACE is pursuing a design for a plant that is remotely operated and maintained. Rob Buckingham, director of RACE, said: “The intention is to create over 100 highly skilled jobs, improve collaboration and build a globally significant robotics cluster in Oxfordshire. Robotics is a key part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, and RACE will play a leading role in delivering this vision, for fusion, for the nuclear sector as a whole and the wider emerging robotics community.”
The University of Bristol has been awarded around £10 million ($12.8m) in funding for three NNUF bids covering robotics, microscopy and materials research. The first, and largest, facility will centre around ‘Hot Robotics’ in collaboration with the University of Manchester, RACE, the University of the West of England (UWE) and the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL). The Active Nano Mapping Facility at the Interface Analysis Centre in the School of Physics will host a new high-speed atomic force microscopy facility. This new equipment will allow the national nuclear academic community to conduct nanoscale measurements with far greater statistical validity on nuclear materials for the first time. The Irradiated Materials Archive Options Study involves establishing either a central or distributed archive of a selection of material that can be accessed by researchers. This has been identified as a priority by the UK Government’s Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board. Finally, the University of Southampton, who are members of the South West Nuclear Hub at the University of Bristol will also receive funding for a facility focusing on radiochemistry.