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IAEA Launches Initiative to Advance Tech Breakthroughs in Nuclear Decommissioning


Example of a ‘digital twin’ of a nuclear facility, enabling real-time representation of a changing environment. (Photo: Sellafield Ltd.)

The IAEA has launched a global initiative aimed at boosting the role of new and emerging technologies in the decommissioning of nuclear facilities, as the industry seeks to streamline the process with the more than two-hundred nuclear power reactors shut down for decommissioning and several of the world’s 438 operating ones expected to phase out over the coming decades.

The initiative – a collaborative project among organizations involved in the planning or implementation of decommissioning and associated research activities – aims to provide information on the new and emerging digital tools and technologies used in data management, planning, licensing and implementation of decommissioning. Like many areas of the nuclear sector, decommissioning faces a technological breakthrough involving the use of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), automation and digitalization. Key issues in this area will also be discussed at the International Conference on Nuclear Decommissioning, to be held at the IAEA headquarters in May 2023, for which abstracts and grant applications must be submitted by 31 October.

“The aim of the project is to work collaboratively, harnessing the expertise of a diverse range of organizations involved in decommissioning to fully realize the potential of new and emerging technologies in this sphere,” said Olena Mykolaichuk, Head of the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology. “The project findings will be published in a report in 2025 that will include information on experiences gained from the practical application and case studies from a variety of countries, based on a range of different decommissioning challenge complexity and varying levels of information.”

Although many nuclear power reactors are undergoing life extensions, considerable decommissioning work is also underway and is expected to take place as power plants reach the end of useful and economical operations. Effective management of decommissioning is vital to the sustainability of nuclear power.

According to IAEA projections, between 12 per cent and 25 per cent of the 2020 nuclear electrical generating capacity is expected to be retired by 2030. So far, a total of 203 nuclear power reactors have been shut down for decommissioning globally, with 21 of them fully decommissioned. In addition, more than 150 fuel cycle facilities have been decommissioned as well as about 450 research reactors.

Decommissioning is a multi-disciplinary process, typically lasting a decade or more for nuclear power plants and may take several decades for major nuclear fuel cycle facilities or where deferred dismantling approaches are being followed. It includes activities such as physical and radiological characterization of the facility and its vicinity, and decontamination and dismantling of plant and building structures, eventually leading to the reuse of the site for some other purpose. Therefore, it must be implemented safely, in a cost-effective and environmentally sensitive manner and considering the future uses of the site.

Digitalization is expected to play an increasingly important role in advancing nuclear decommissioning projects by enabling experts to improve their planning and implementation. Potential benefits span several areas of activity: providing improved means of gathering, analyzing and display of information needed to plan dismantling strategies; facilitating operator training through enabling the simulation of planned activities in a virtual environment; supporting accurate definition of future waste arisings and thereby improved cost estimation; and enabling improved visualization of decommissioning scenarios, both by operators and by external stakeholders.

“The application of digital information models brings significant benefits for decommissioning of older facilities with associated uncertainties about the precise configuration of the facility and the hazards that may be involved,” said Mike Guy, Decommissioning Technology and Information Manager for Sellafield Limited in the UK, who chaired the meeting. “This collaborative project will also consider how digitalization can be applied to such facilities to optimize these benefits for a variety of situations throughout the planning, licensing, dismantling and waste management phases of a project.”

Three areas of collaboration are being addressed over the course of the project and working groups have been established on digital tool selection for a variety of different decommissioning challenges during planning and implementation; technologies for conversion of unstructured legacy data into a structured format connected to digital model of facility; and emerging technologies for the generation of detailed digital models from Point Cloud data including the use of automated digital tools.

As well as exchanging information on the challenges, benefits and limitations associated with the use of different technologies to address different situations, the groups will apply different approaches to addressing specified challenges and will undertake a detailed analysis of the findings obtained from the use of different approaches and technologies.

3D modelling and simulations to facilitate preparation of the dismantling of different types of nuclear facilities are increasingly being used in decommissioning projects globally, particularly in major programmes. These include projects being implemented by organizations that have been designated as an IAEA Collaborating Centre on decommissioning. The latter organizations include Norway’s Institute of Energy Technology (IFE); the Slovak Nuclear and Decommissioning Company (JAVYS); Italy’s Decommissioning and Radioactive Waste Management Company (SOGIN); Electricité de France’s Decommissioning and Waste Management Directorate (EDF-DP2D), France; and Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA).

To continue the exchange of information on decommissioning, the IAEA International Conference on Nuclear Decommissioning: Addressing the Past and Ensuring the Future next May will provide a forum to share information on achievements, challenges and lessons learned, as well as on the strategies and approaches that can enable and enhance safe, secure and cost-effective implementation of national decommissioning programmes. 

The conference will include a special session on perspectives on enhancing decommissioning effectiveness and efficiency, including the application of recent innovations as well as good practices and technologies from other industries. An exhibition, including displays on the theme of innovation in decommissioning, particularly in the fields of digitalization, artificial intelligence and robotics, is being organized as part of the conference. 

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