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Robotics Challenge Winning Design Helps Speed up Spent Fuel Verification

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The winning design for the Unmanned Surface Vehicle undergoes real-world testing at the Loviisa Nuclear Power Plant in Finland. (Photo: IAEA)

An unmanned surface vehicle (USV), designed by a group of Hungarian engineers, is the winner of the IAEA Robotics Challenge, launched in 2017. The design was selected by the IAEA, having first undergone a thorough evaluation of design and performance by its experts.

The Robotics Challenge sought to find innovative ways to enhance in-field inspection activities. Such activities form the core of the IAEA’s nuclear verification work, known as ‘safeguards’. Some of the most common tasks undertaken by IAEA nuclear safeguards inspectors involve making repetitive measurements in locations that can be difficult to access and/or have elevated radiation levels. This is an area where robotics has the potential to play a useful role.

When performing their inspection activities at nuclear facilities around the world, nuclear safeguards inspectors frequently use a small hand-held optical instrument called the Improved Cerenkov Viewing Device (ICVD). The ICVD confirms the presence of spent nuclear fuel stored underwater, where it is typically placed for cooling following its removal from the reactor core. The job of inspectors is to verify whether the amount of fuel stored matches the amount declared by national authorities, and that none of it has been removed and potentially diverted from peaceful use.

Currently, safeguards inspectors need to hold the ICVD from a gantry suspended above a spent fuel pool and manually peer through a lens at the individual fuel assemblies, of which there can be hundreds at a time. For the Challenge, the IAEA sought designs that could mount the newly developed neXt Generation Cerenkov Viewing Device (XCVD), capable of providing digital recording, inside a small robotised floating platform which would autonomously propel itself across the surface of a spent fuel pool. By stabilising the XCVD in a vertical position, the USV could enable the provision of clearer images in a shorter timeframe to aid nuclear safeguards inspectors in verifying the spent nuclear fuel.

To be able to contribute to nuclear non-proliferation efforts and the important verification work of the IAEA is very exciting.
Peter Kopias, Chief Executive Officer, Datastart, Hungary

IAEA experts review the performance of the winning Unmanned Surface Vehicle design. (Photo: IAEA)

The Robotics Challenge attracted more than 300 submissions. Of the 12 proposals selected for demonstration, three designs were tested in a real-world setting. “For the final phase of the Robotics Challenge in November 2018, the designs underwent real-world testing in a spent fuel storage pool at a nuclear power plant in Finland,” said Dimitri Finker, Technology Foresight Specialist at the IAEA’s Department of Safeguards. “This gave our experts the chance to review the merits of each design and to evaluate which of them suited safeguards operational needs, had safety considerations built-in, and gave the best image quality for verification.”

The IAEA will now work with its Member States, nuclear facility operators, and the designers of the winning USV to finalize the design and ensure it is compliant with all applicable requirements and regulations. Pending this, the IAEA will seek authorisation from its Member States to use the USV in the field.

“We’re very happy that our design was chosen from among such a strong competition. To be able to contribute to nuclear non-proliferation efforts and the important verification work of the IAEA is very exciting,” said Peter Kopias, owner and Chief Executive Officer of Datastart, the winning company. “The Robotics Challenge required a creative engineering solution. I’m delighted our unique design met the needs of the users.” 

In addition to the Robotics Challenge, the IAEA also conducts other technology challenges to identify and support the development of promising technologies which have the potential to aid its work.

“Usually responses to official tenders for technical equipment with potential applications for safeguards work are only sought from a few highly specialised institutions. With the IAEA’s technology challenges, scientific solutions are sought from hundreds of technology stakeholders,” said Finker.

The latest challenge, the IAEA Tomography Reconstruction and Analysis Challenge, looks to improve the verification process of spent nuclear fuel with advanced data processing techniques. Online registration is now open, with a deadline of 6 May 2019 for the submission of entries.

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