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Wull-E: Robots doing dirty work

30 July 08 11:45 GMT
By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

A small army of robots is being increasingly deployed in the clean-up of a Scottish nuclear complex.

Like Wall-E, the star of the new Pixar animated film, the machines are tackling man-made waste.

The real-life robots have been working in highly radioactive areas of Dounreay in Caithness in the Highlands.

A spokeswoman said: "They have really proved themselves, particularly the semi-automatic ones that can be pre-programmed."

She said they were being used more and more in areas too hazardous for staff to work in and proving vital in the decommissioning of the former research site - clearing away highly radioactive waste.

The machines include ones which can be pre-programmed and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

The spokesman for Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (DSRL) added: "Decommissioning these facilities is challenging, and an ideal environment in which to deploy remotely operated equipment."

One of the biggest jobs at the site is removing breeder elements taken from Dounreay's experimental fast reactor.

When it was in use, the reactor exposed uranium to neutrons turning it into plutonium for fuel. The term breeder was given to this process.

Almost 1,000 breeder elements, each made up of 14 cylindrical containers of natural uranium wrapped in stainless steel cladding, will have to be removed from the fast reactor, which is housed in Dounreay's iconic sphere.

Once transferred to the containment building, the elements will be cut up, washed, examined and packaged so they can be treated as waste or re-usable material.

A number of machines have been installed in a new £50m breeder containment building nearing completion at the base of the sphere.

One orange-coloured robot which will be used in the process is similar to those used on car production lines.

When a container of pieces of breeder comes along the line in front of it, the machine will open it, swab it for contamination and close it.

This will all be done in a sealed cell which workers cannot access because of the radiation hazard.

French-manufactured manipulators, or bionic arms, will also allow staff standing on the other side of a thick wall to work on breeder material without exposing themselves to radiation.

Robots are also being widely used in reprocessing plants undergoing decontamination.

The spokeswoman said: "Using remote tools such as the Brokk 180 can complete some physical decommissioning tasks more quickly than human workers, and without exposing them to the hazards.

"The Brokk was used in smashing down walls. For a person to do that they would have to wear an airline suit and a sledge hammer."

ROVs will also be sent to the seabed off Dounreay to gather radioactive particles linked to historic rogue discharge from the plant.

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