Japan and the UK are partnering to develop and deploy new automation and robotics techniques for use in both the decommissioning of nuclear plants and the development of nuclear fusion energy. The project, designated LongOps, will receive £12-million in funding and will run for four years.
The funding is being provided equally by three entities. These are UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Japan’s Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco). The project will be led by the Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE) facility of the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). The UKAEA is the British government agency responsible for research and development (R&D) in the field of nuclear fusion energy.
“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,” affirmed UK Science Minister (equivalent to a Deputy Minister in South Africa) Amanda Solloway. “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.”
“It has been almost a decade since the Fukushima Daiichi 1F accident on March 11th, 2011. Tepco’s 1F 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 uncharted territory such as fuel debris retrieval (FDR),” pointed out Tepco chief decommissioning officer Akira Ono. “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.”
Decommissioning nuclear facilities is a complex and time-consuming process. The UKAEA RACE facility has 20 years of experience in developing and using robots and remote-controlled equipment in high-radiation environments within nuclear plants (in particular, the Joint European Torus nuclear fusion R&D reactor). LongOps will combine this expertise with that of Tepco to develop technologies to both allow advanced decommissioning activities such as FDR and provide improved maintenance, parts replacement, refuelling and ultimately decommissioning services for fusion reactors, without any risk to human health.
LongOps will combine robotics with digital twinning. This is, explains the UKAEA, “a formative technology for the Industrial Internet of Things enabling the optimisation of operations, improved productivity, and the ability to test and innovate in the virtual world before developing real world applications”. The British funding for the project will be drawn from the £450-million allocated by the UK government since 2014 for R&D into robotics and autonomous systems.