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Rise of the nuclear 'Terminators'

7 May 09 08:19 GMT

By Steven McKenzie
Highlands and Islands reporter, BBC Scotland news website

Pipe crawler and Reactorsaurus sound as if they should be characters in the forthcoming apocalyptic robots v humans film, Terminator Salvation.

The first might scurry centipede-like through wall cavities and drains, before bursting out to attack.

Meanwhile, the second crushes all in its path in gargantuan metal jaws.

But instead of battling the movie's stars Christian Bale and Moon Bloodgood they have been designed to demolish a nuclear power complex.

The 75-tonne Reactorsaurus is the latest to go into development.

The remotely-operated pipe crawler, meanwhile, has already been put to use at Dounreay, the defunct experimental nuclear energy plant in Caithness.

Built in the 1950s, the most modern technologies are now being used to terminate it.

The threat of radioactive contamination means large parts of the demolition of buildings and the removal and destruction of equipment require the deployment of remotely-operated machines and robotics.

Jared Fraser, head of the Dounreay design team, said many of the solutions to deconstructing the nuclear site involved designing some "unique contraptions and devices".

He said: "The design and creation of these pioneering machines presents many challenges.

"Often the complexities involved and environmental conditions mean the design should be kept as simple as possible due to the intricate nature of the process."

Reactorsaurus is due to be built by 2013 to tear out the insides of the Prototype Fast Reactor.

Its robotic arms will reach 16 metres down into the reactor vessel.

Activated from a central control room, these arms will use diamond wire and disks, hydraulic shears, oxy/propane and plasma cutting gear to slice up the reactor's innards.

Six radiation-tolerant cameras will relay images and sound back to the control room.

Mr Fraser said: "The reactor dismantling projects are critical to the decommissioning of the Dounreay site on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

"To safely pull apart the plants we need to inspect all the nooks and crannies within the reactors, and the design and creation of these ingenious robotic devices to enable us to carry out the work is a credit to the in-house design team.

"The design of purpose-built equipment which constantly tests our skills as a team is invaluable for successful delivery of our programme of work."

Earlier this year, the pipe crawler, a device described by its operators as a hi-tech worm, was used to probe the condition of a pipeline once used to discharge radioactive effluent from the site.

The £100,000 machine beamed back images from inside the underground pipeline to the sea which was in use from 1957 to 1992.

It spent five days in the system, sending back video images and radioactivity readings.

Radioactive particles have been found on beaches near Dounreay in recent years.

The metallic fragments of reprocessed reactor fuel are linked to a historic discharge from the plant into the sea.

In the Terminator franchise, T3: Rise of the Machines was the third in the series of films.

There is a T3 too near Dounreay - T3UK is one of two off-site locations where some of the mechanical aids to decommissioning the plant are tested.

Fortunately, a similarity in name is all it shares with a movie that ends in a fictional nuclear holocaust.

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