How To Clean Nuclear Waste

Cleaning up radioactive waste is a dangerous job for a human. That’s why researchers at the University of  Manchester are developing robots that could do the job for us. Five years ago, in 2011, a major earthquake and tsunami devastated the east coast of Japan, leading to explosions and subsequent radiation release at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. The fuel in three of the reactors is believed to have melted, causing a large amount of contaminated water on site.

This is still to be dealt with today – which isn’t too surprising, given that the clean-up of Chernobyl is still underway 30 years after the infamous nuclear accident took place. After the accident at Chernobyl, where an extremely high level of radiation was released, workers had to be sent into areas to which you wouldn’t want to send a human being. For the safety of others, they entered the plant to survey its condition, extinguish fires and manually operate equipment and machinery – all in an environment that endangered their lives. The challenge in dismantling the site at Fukushima is the residual radiation level. In the surrounding areas levels have fallen significantly; in some places (still off limits to former residents) radiation levels actually aren’t very different from natural background levels in certain other parts of the world. But in the reactor itself a person would receive a lethal dose of radiation almost instantly.


At Fukushima, many of the instrumentation systems, such as reactor-water level and reactor pressure, were lost in the incident. This made assessing the integrity of the plant extremely difficult as you couldn’t send people to go and look at it,” explains Professor Barry Lennox, who, alongside Dr Simon Watson at The University of Manchester, is working to find another way of getting access to such dangerous places: by using robots. Professor Lennox and Dr Watson are part of a team working to adapt robots to help clean up Fukushima. They’re developing an underwater remote-operated vehicle – the AVEXIS – to help identify highly radioactive nuclear fuel that is believed to be dispersed underwater in the damaged reactor. The robot is already aiding decommissioning efforts at Sellafield, where it will swim around the ponds storing legacy waste to map and monitor the conditions within them.