A consortium led by engineering firm Wood has won £1.5m ($2.1m) in UK government funding to develop a new nuclear decommissioning solution.  

The company’s project and four others were selected as finalists by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) after a competition produced a shortlist of 15 proposals. Each finalist has received a £1.5m award.

According to Wood, its project aims to combine robotics with data and control systems to design a demonstrator system for cleaning and dismantling radioactive rooms at the UK’s Sellafield nuclear site, which is scheduled to be shut down by 2020.  

The company said it plans to apply new technologies developed in space exploration, automotive production and medicine for the project.

These technologies include new material handling solutions to reduce the risks of working at height, mixed reality headsets, a multi-fingered gripper allowing robots to grasp different objects, and a navigation system designed for missions to Mars that enables autonomous mapping where human access is impossible. 

Among the aims of the project are to provide rapid, real-time characterization of nuclear waste by bringing the laboratory to the disposal site; to reduce operations at height and remove the need for temporary platforms, scaffolds and man entry; and to create a suite of modular waste handling and processing tools to characterize, size-reduce, sort and decontaminate waste.

Also working on the project will be research partners Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, Clicks and Links Ltd, Damavan Imaging SAS, Digital Concepts Engineering Ltd, IS-Instruments Ltd, I3D Robotics Ltd, the University of Lancaster, the University of Salford, Kawasaki UK Ltd and TWI.

The X-2 ROV, designed by project partner Digital Concepts Engineering, is pictured here. The company said it can climb stairs when heavily loaded and turn on the spot. 

The competition was launched last year by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and innovation funding agency Innovate UK. It aims to find a solution for decommissioning Sellafield’s Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant and Magnox Reprocessing Plant, which are both due to close by 2020.

A first series of trials is set to take place over the next 18 months. Projects deemed to be viable will then progress to more rigorous trials in a radioactive environment and ultimately to approval for use by the nuclear regulator.

Bob MacDonald, CEO of Wood’s Specialist Technical Solutions business, said the company’s proposal for “a fully remote solution removes the operator from a hazardous environment and is adaptable enough to tackle different tasks, many of which present unique challenges”.

He added that Wood will function as an “innovation integrator, bringing together ingenious ideas from industry and academia to define a new approach to the nuclear decommissioning challenge”.

Melanie Brownridge, the NDA’s head of technology, said responses to the competition had been so promising that the total amount available to the five chosen projects was increased from £3m to £8.5m.

She added: “We’re hopeful that a number may be successful, and could be used in various different situations at our sites as well as in other hazardous scenarios, both here and overseas.”