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Foth robot

Nuclear Waste Cleanup: Send in the Robots

Foth robotRobots may be key to cleaning up nuclear waste, according to Bloomberg, which details how drones are cleaning up Europe’s biggest nuclear site, reaching contaminated areas where humans could never survive.

At Sellafield, a nuclear decommissioning site on the coast of the Irish Sea in Cumbria, England, robots are tasked with collecting data and cleaning up contaminated waste ponds and structures.

Also on Thursday, the European Parliament voted in favor of stricter regulations on robots and artificial intelligence, which politicians fear will wipe out millions of jobs worldwide. The vote is not binding, and must be acted upon by the European Commission.

Despite concerns about robots replacing human workers, nuclear waste cleanup, as Bloomberg says, is a “job the robots can have.” Places like Sellafield, where hundreds of tons of radioactive material are in the structures and at risk of leaking into the soil or causing a fire — and must be cleaned within the next two decades — pose too high of an EHS risk for humans.

Paul Dorfman, honorary senior researcher at the Energy Institute at University College London, told Bloomberg that the 70-year-old site will cost at least £90 billion to ($12 billion) to decommission.

Createc is one of the robotics companies working with Sellafield. It has developed a quadcopter drone small enough to fly in the office kitchen, or through holes made by the site’s 1957 reactor fire. It’s equipped with cameras, air-pressure sensors, gyrometers, accelerometers, and other measuring tools that stream back 3D maps locating the radioactive material.

Createc has also been hired by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to develop radiation sensors for use at the Fukushima nuclear site in Japan.

Forth Engineering is also developing a £500,000 ($623,828) six-legged machine (pictured) to clean up Selafield, said Mark Telford, managing director of Forth.

The robot is packed with cameras and sensors to see its environment. A giant pincher on the front grabs contaminated material and breaks it up. Magnets on the machine’s feet will enable it to crawl up walls. Artificial intelligence software allows a team of the robots to work without humans at the controls, communicating with one another to complete a task. If one breaks down, others take over. “The robot will make its own decisions on how it walks, what it sees, and its interpretation of its environment,” Telford says.

Other industries, including agriculture and oil and gas, are also turning to robots to make their operations more efficient and reduce costs and environmental impact.

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