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Japan, UK team up for nuclear robotics and automation research

The UK and Japan have signed a research and technology deployment collaboration agreement to help automate nuclear decommissioning and aspects of fusion energy production. The collaboration is expected to lead to new robotics and automation techniques used in Japan and the UK.

The four-year, GBP12 million (USD16 million) UK-Japanese robotics project – referred to as LongOps – will support delivery of faster and safer decommissioning at Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (Tepco) damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan and at the Sellafield complex in the UK, using long-reach robotic arms.

The collaboration will be funded equally by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Japan’s Tepco.

The UK Atomic Energy Agency’s Remote Applications in Challenging Environments (RACE) facility will lead the project, design strategy and deliver new robotic capabilities with global potential. Direct benefits, such as employment opportunities, advances to “fusion-adjacent” technologies, upskilling of the UK and Japanese scientific and engineering capabilities are all expected.

A 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 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, once their operations have ended.

“Robotics offers us new ways to tackle our complex work safely, securely and cost-effectively,” said Adrian Simper, group strategy and technology director at the NDA. “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 added: “It has been almost a decade since the Fukushima Daiichi accident on 11 March, 2011. Tepco’s Fukushima Daiichi 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. I recognise that the robotics and remote-control technology is one of the most important key success factors for the fuel debris retrieval project.”

LongOps forms part of the more than GBP450 million of investment by the UK government into robotics and autonomous systems projects since 2014.

Source: World Nuclear News