‘Tense’ UK scientists enter Chernobyl nuclear reactor control room in ‘pioneering’ project

Chernobyl: Radioactive hotspot discovered in Red Forest

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The team, from the University of Bristol, also deployed their hi-tech gear inside the New Safe Confinement (NSC), the protective structure which was built to cover the remains of the failed reactor and the original Sarcophagus, hastily constructed in the aftermath of the 1986 accident. The deployment, which was funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council EPSRC’s Robotics and AI in Nuclear (RAIN) research consortium, was the team’s fourth visit to Chernobyl, and follows the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in early 2021 between the University of Bristol and the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) at Ukraine National Academy of Science.

The visit, a joint initiative between the University of Bristol and the ISPNPP, was intended to explore the value of autonomous and semi-autonomous radiation mapping systems in high-radiation environments.

By using such systems in the Exclusion Zone and at the ChNPP, researchers were able to better define the location and amount of residual radiological hazards.

Scientists demonstrated several robotic systems, fitted with ground-breaking sensing equipment developed between the universities of Bristol and Oxford as part of the RAIN (Robotics and AI in Nuclear research) project.

The aim was to collect highly accurate 3D models of the facility, along with radiation data, in order to define the distribution and severity of the radiological risks.

Lead researcher, Professor Tom Scott, from the University of Bristol and Co-Director of RAIN, said: “To actually venture inside the control room of the failed reactor was a tense and yet exhilarating experience.

“The team did a fantastic job of deploying our systems quickly and in challenging conditions.

“It’s a huge reward after months of hard work and planning to know our technology performs well in real nuclear environments.”

The high-profile deployment was the culmination of several years of hard development work as part of the RAIN project, Prof Scott explained.

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He added: “We’re so pleased to have successfully demonstrated a capability that is both useful for Chernobyl decommissioning but also for legacy nuclear sites in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

“We are now entering a phase of decommissioning here in the UK, at Sellafield and Magnox, therefore we are developing new sensing systems, robotic solutions and special types of detectors because that technology is needed now.

“Robots can make nuclear decommissioning faster, cheaper and more importantly, safer! We would only be able to develop this technology with the guidance and information from our Ukrainian partners.”

The deployment was a significant milestone for both the Bristol and ISPNPP teams, whose aim is to develop new technology for decreasing risk associated with decommissioning nuclear facilities.

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The high-end 3D visualisations achieved by the team’s mapping technology will help the Ukrainian Government’s dismantling project and the decommissioning of the power station, with the site having licensing permissions to begin remote dismantling of the sarcophagus, followed by retrievals and packaging of the vast volumes of reactor core debris.

In the 12 months since their last visit, the team has made huge technological advances, and this time used specially designed cutting-edge radiation sensing and laser mapping solution.

Dr Dave Megson-Smith, Senior Research Associate at Bristol’s Interface Analysis Centre (IAC), said: “With this type of multi-sensor system we can help our Ukrainian colleagues in conducting a diverse set of advanced characterisation and survey tasks in the most challenging of environments.”

Dr Peter Martin, also from the IAC and a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow, added: “Entering the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is far from trivial and in order to practice for the deployments we were allowed to deploy the sensing technologies in Reactor Unit 3 and the control room of Unit 4, before venturing inside the New Safe Confinement.

“We were very pleased that the systems performed exactly as expected, recording excellent data that we can quickly construct 3D digital representations from.”

Mr Leonid Yakovenko, Head of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant Radiation Safety Shop, said: “The success of this important research owes itself to the effective collaboration between the scientists of ISPNPP, the University of Bristol, and the specialist engineers from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

“Together we have been able to carry out novel experiments using pioneering technology to assess the radiation situation at the Chernobyl NPP and, particularly, inside the new safe confinement zone.

“The Bristol team demonstrated the effectiveness of their scanning systems in high radiation conditions, producing detailed data within the facility and paving the way for more advanced remote robotic radiation mapping.”

Now back in the UK, the pioneering research team will study the data collected at the site and provide the Ukrainian authorities with previously unavailable, highly detailed, and accurate maps of the distribution of radiation levels surrounding the reactor.

The Chernobyl disaster is considered the worst nuclear accident in history both in terms of cost and casualties.

Although fewer than 100 deaths are directly attribute to it, it caused a spike in radiation levels which is likely to be responsible for many more.

A 19-mile exclusion zone remains in force to this day, with the city of Pripyat abandoned permanently.

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