The UK and Japan have signed a robotics collaboration to automate nuclear decommissioning and fusion energy production.
In what both countries are calling a “world-leading alliance”, the £12M robotics project named ‘LongOps’ will support delivery of faster and safer decommissioning by using long-reach robotic arms at Sellafield in the UK and the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors in Japan, where work is ongoing following a tsunami which hit the plant in March 2011.
Akira Ono, chief decommissioning officer at Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) which operates the plant, said: “It has been almost a decade since the Fukushima Daiichi accident.
“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.
He said robotics and remote-control technology “is one of the most important key success factors” for fuel debris retrieval.
The four-year research collaboration will be funded equally by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and TEPCO.
The collaboration is also expected to result in direct benefits, such as employment opportunities, advances to “fusion-adjacent” technologies, and upskilling of the UK and Japanese scientific and engineering capabilities.
The decommissioning of legacy nuclear facilities and fusion facilities are complex large-scale projects that are time-intensive to accomplish safely.
Robotics and digital twin technologies will play an essential part in carrying them out efficiently with no risk to human health.
A major feature of the LongOps programme will be the deployment of sophisticated 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 will 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), once their lifespans have ended.
LongOps forms part of over £450M investment by Government into robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) projects since 2014.
Adrian Simper, Group Strategy and Technology Director at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, said robotics “offers us 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.”