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How to gather better data and reduce dosage in nuclear facilities

Published by Josh Spires on 28 October, 2021, updated on 20 January, 2022.

How to gather better data and reduce dosage in nuclear facilities

Nuclear power constitutes more than half of the non-carbon electricity generated in the United States, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Given global decarbonization efforts, there is a strong likelihood that nuclear power will become a more significant contender in energy production as time progresses and demand continues to climb.

As an industry, however, nuclear power generation faces a unique set of challenges. Stringent safety regulations mandate frequent inspection of often hard-to-access equipment in hazardous areas. Operating nuclear reactors requires extensive engineering and systems expertise with a heavy focus on plant and worker safety, as radiation exposure and contamination are not to be taken lightly.

Additionally, the average age of a power reactor in the United States is 39 years old. As the US nuclear fleet ages, it’s critical to maintain a safe operating environment that can provide uninterrupted power that’s still affordable to the energy consumer. Doing so requires continuous monitoring, repetitive maintenance, and a swift response to emergent issues.

Performing these tasks in hazardous temperatures, pressures, and radiation levels means that often the only options are either to exercise a controlled human dose to the plant employees or to power down the reactor to safe levels for extended entry into radiologically controlled areas. Derating a power unit for an unscheduled outage is extremely expensive (some industry experts estimate the cost for nuclear reactor shutdown at about one million dollars a day) and can cause significant disruption to electrical utility infrastructure.

In addition to routine plant operations, industry professionals will sometimes be called upon to decommission nuclear reactors, and to attend to the depleted (yet still highly radioactive) fuel that remains in long-term storage. These processes are hazardous and expensive and add to the overall total operational lifetime cost of generating electricity from uranium.

As the industry looks to scale green energy in the face of these challenges, innovators are looking for new tools to increase efficiencies and reduce costs, while simultaneously improving worker safety. Although the use of robots in nuclear power plants is not new—for example, single-purpose robots have been deployed to weld and cut pipes—these machines have historically had limited mobility and flexibility. A go-anywhere, multitasking robot would enable nuclear operators to gather valuable operational data, get eyes in hazardous areas, and reduce employee dosage.

Boston Dynamics Spot fits this bill perfectly.

Capabilities in hazardous areas

Spot is an agile mobile robot that can go where humans can. Especially important for the nuclear industry, Spot can go where humans often cannot due to the potential for radiation exposure and the presence of high-pressure steam. Operators can outfit the quadruped robot with dosimeters, thermal cameras, and software tools to help with a variety of tasks such as inspection and decommissioning in these otherwise hard-to-reach areas.

The nuclear power industry can use Spot reliably because it offers a unique set of advantages:

  • Robust, Agile Autonomy: Spot walks by perceiving its environment and dynamically navigating obstacles. Whether operating on pre-programmed routes or being driven by an operator, Spot can traverse uneven or cramped spaces which wheeled robots or drones struggle to access. In areas with the potential for loose contamination, the fact that Spot walks instead of uses wheels means that it minimizes its contact with the floor, reducing the possibility of picking up or spreading radioactive material through other areas of the plant.
  • Reliable, Live Data: When an unexpected event occurs, reactor operators need actionable insight at their fingertips. While reactor facilities have extensive instrumentation, it’s often necessary to get direct “eyes on” the situation within the plant. Equipped with cameras, radiation, and temperature sensors, Spot can livestream data from remote areas of the reactor building so operators can assess risks and make decisions based on accurate and up-to-date information.
  • Flexible Sensing Platform: Spot can carry a variety of radiation detecting payloads integrated with its onboard application programming interface (API). Whether equipped with sensors for gamma ray detection, neutron detection, alpha inspection with pancake sensors, or personal dosimeters, Spot can map radiation and gather data for risk assessment and asset management without the need of increasing radiation protection workers’ total annual dose.

Spot in nuclear operations

There are a number of ways that a nuclear power plant can use Spot:

Autonomous radiation sensing and mapping

Spot can be outfitted with a radiation detection monitor and deployed inside radiologically controlled areas without a human present. While there, it can relay live dose rates to map and monitor exposure rates without having to send in a radiation protection technician. Automating these data collection missions amplifies the value of this data by providing it more frequently. This enables long-term trend analysis of radiation levels in parts of the plant where previously such granular monitoring would be impossible.

General inspection and data collection

Nuclear plant operators and engineers need to conduct frequent inspections on the myriad of hydraulic, electrical, steam, and mechanical systems that comprise the sum total of a fission-based generating facility. Far from replacing the expertise and insights of nuclear engineers, Spot delivers them the data they need to make meaningful decisions—repeatedly, reliably, and without costly modifications to the plant’s interior.

Avoiding or reducing downtime

The traditional approach to working in hazardous areas is to derate the power plant for a day or two, and dispatch technicians once it is safe to do so. Such procedures generate expensive downtime. Since Spot can be deployed in areas that humans cannot readily access, it increases productivity and cuts wasted downtime. The entire plant doesn’t need to shut down for Spot to do its job. Before a reactor refueling event, Spot can conduct dose assessment surveys and help facilitate pre-outage readiness in high-radiation areas to ensure that plant workers are able to start their tasks immediately upon power down with confidence in their understanding of the environment they’re about to enter.

Safe and fast decommissioning

The decommissioning of nuclear facilities and emergency planning are also part of the life cycle of a power plant. Spot can also help in these instances with final status and characterization surveys. It can be dispatched to measure radiation activity, especially in areas of concern that have been lying untouched for decades.

Nuclear power plants need cost-effective and reliable tools that can work in hazardous conditions. Spot is such a workhorse. It is robust, mobile, affordable, and can perform a range of tasks in environments beyond human reach.

Source: Boston Dynamics

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