Long arm robotics system for nuclear decommissioning - credit/ Nuclear Decommissioning AuthorityThe UK and Japan have signed a £12 million ($16.3m) research and technology deployment collaboration to help automate nuclear decommissioning and aspects of fusion energy production.

The collaboration will see new robotics and automation techniques applied to both fusion research and to decommissioning nuclear facilities in Japan and the UK.

The LongOps robotics project will support delivery of faster and safer decommissioning using long-reach robotic arms at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (Tepco’s) Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan and at Sellafield in the UK.

The four-year collaboration will be funded equally by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Tepco. The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE) facility will lead the project, design strategy and deliver new robotic capabilities with global potential. Other direct benefits are expected to include employment opportunities, advances to “fusion-adjacent” technologies, and upskilling of the UK and Japanese scientific and engineering capabilities.

A major feature of the LongOps programme will be the deployment of digital twin technology – virtual models where the pairing of the virtual and physical worlds allows for highly detailed analysis of data, and the forecasting of potential maintenance and operational issues. The software created will allow RACE to show how such machines are controlled in real-time during remote operations.

Developments from LongOps will also be applied to the upgrading, maintenance and dismantling of fusion devices, such as the Joint European Torus (JET), at the end of their operating lives. LongOps forms part of more than £450 million investment by government into robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) projects since 2014. The Robotics Growth Partnership brings UK RAS businesses and government together to harness smart machines for productivity and wider societal benefit.

“To unlock the amazing potential of nuclear power, it’s critical that the UK works hand in hand with international partners to safely decommission nuclear sites while backing pioneering research into fusion, which could offer a limitless source of clean energy,” said Amanda Solloway, UK Minister for Science, Research and Innovation.

“This innovative research alliance with Japan will ensure we share our expertise in robotics to address complex challenges such as nuclear decommissioning, while helping to secure highly skilled jobs across the country as we build back better from the pandemic.”

NDA Group Strategy and Technology Director Adrian Simper said robotics offers 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.”

Tepco Chief Decommissioning Officer Akira Ono recalled that it is almost a decade since the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi  accident. He said Tepco’s 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 unchartered territory such as Fuel Debris Retrieval (FDR)”.

He added: “I recognise that the 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, and I also feel secure that we can work with our partners, UKAEA, NDA/Sellafield, and UKRI for this UK-Japan international challenge.”

Dr Rob Buckingham, director of UKAEA’s RACE centre, said LongOps will build long-term partnerships between UK’s Sellafield and Japan’s Tepco to find faster and safer methods for fusion development and to solve complex decommissioning problems. “The project will build innovation pipelines with industry for new robotics and AI tools. It will also solidify relationships between operators and researchers in the UK and Japan. I am delighted that UKAEA will play a key enabling role in this international venture.”

Photo: Long arm robotics system for nuclear decommissioning (Credit/ Nuclear Decommissioning Authority)