There are very few projects which you can truly call generational. Yet for the team from Sellafield Ltd, in charge of cleaning up the country’s highest nuclear risks and hazards, that’s the scale of the challenge.
Sellafield in west Cumbria is the UK’s largest nuclear site, delivering one of the most important environmental remediation projects in Europe on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). Covering two square miles and comprising more than 200 nuclear facilities and 1,300 buildings, the site helped to create the nation’s nuclear deterrent 75 years ago. Sellafield was also the first to harness electricity generated by nuclear power on a commercial scale; it recycled the country’s used fuel and reprocessed more than anyone else in the world. Today the company is focused on cleaning up the nuclear legacy to create a clean and safe environment for future generations.
Dealing with the legacy of the past and cleaning up the site is a nationally important programme of work that will take more than 100 years to complete. Sellafield Ltd and the NDA are developing their robotics and AI capability to help to complete this programme faster, more safely and more efficiently. Rav Chunilal, head of robotics and AI at Sellafield Ltd, explains how new approaches and technologies will support this work.
What roles do AI and robotics play in decommissioning Sellafield?
Some of the buildings at Sellafield and across the NDA group are not easily accessible to carry out our decommissioning and clean-up work. This could be due to the radioactive materials that they contain and the nature of the physical environment, so we’re looking at using robotics to help us undertake these tasks remotely. For us, robotics and AI can remove our workforce from harm’s way. It’s about improving safety, productivity and efficiency.
You have used AI and tech on land, in air and in water. Could you provide a few examples?
This work translates into different activities in practical terms. Air-specific technology mostly relates to our use of drones to undertake inspections of external facilities. Our unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) carry out numerous flights each day across Sellafield, and that will continue to increase in time to allow us to collect asset condition data and proactively manage any necessary works in a timely manner. This capability also works with teams across the NDA group and other sectors to share best practice and development opportunities.
On land, inside our facilities, we use fixed and ground-based robots – similar to what you’d see in an automotive manufacturing environment. They undertake tasks such as radioactivity scanning and use remotely operated lasers to cut up materials to help decommissioning, but also learn and help improve our plan for future decommissioning activities. This capability will expand as we progress our decommissioning mission.
For water, we have several ponds that house nuclear fuel and material waste. To help us with the management of those ponds, we use underwater remote operated vehicles (ROVs) to carry out scanning and help clean up various materials to process elsewhere on the site.
AI cuts through all of the aforementioned areas in making these robots more autonomous and assisting our operators. Sellafield recently launched its first AI strategy, which sets out its vision on adopting AI to help improve how we use our data more effectively. There are already several projects being developed throughout the organisation to help us understand the benefits AI can bring. These will be shared across the NDA group to ensure the value continues to grow.
Has the integration of this technology come at the expense of roles that could have been filled by humans? Or is this an assistive tool for workers?
Technology is used as an assistive tool. It’s about improving how the workforce and our device operators undertake work. Some of our workforce use protective clothing and go into highly radioactive environments to undertake clean-up work – but they can only undertake this for a period of time. The experience that operators have in working in those environments, physically, gets translated into them operating robotics systems. So, it’s not replacing our workforce but it’s upskilling them to operate in a slightly different way. Integration of new technology into the workplace also provides the opportunity to create more highly skilled jobs.
What is your overarching goal with the use of robotics and AI across Sellafield and the UK’s decommissioning of nuclear sites?
Our mantra and thought process with robotics and AI is that it makes operations safer, faster and cheaper. In turn, you get a great return on investment in technology, and it becomes cheaper in the long run, ensuring we are providing the best possible value.
We also see skills-building and academic development as being important in delivering a positive local social impact. We’ve set up RAICo (robotics and AI collaboration), in partnership with the NDA group, the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the University of Manchester and Sellafield Ltd, to help improve the delivery of decommissioning. A key part of that programme is working with the supply chain and academia, as well as attracting them to west Cumbria – a great place to live and work.
What roles do skills and academia play in this work?
It’s hugely important. What we’re not going to be doing is developing a robotics capability for the nuclear sector. We want to create an intelligent client capability, so we can work in a better way with the supply chain, academia and other industries. Also we will develop these relationships further so they can understand what our challenges are, not just for Sellafield but also across the NDA group.
We also want to help the next generation within our sector. We regularly run Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) activities in schools, developing a curriculum to help the next generation get into our field and progress all the way from primary education through to graduate level and beyond.
What new technological frontiers will need to be conquered to help with decommissioning?
Robotics and AI are currently hot themes, and over the next five to ten years it will be a growing trend. Inevitably there will be new technological advancements that we may look to adapt to. We’re a heavily regulated industry, so the adoption of any new technology that could be assisting us needs to be deployed safely, securely and sustainably, in line with regulation. So our role in working collaboratively with our regulators is hugely important in this space, regardless of whether it’s robotics, AI, or any future technology.