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Australia testing robots to track spent nuclear fuel

International teams at a robotics competition in Australia have developed robots that prevent spent nuclear fuel from falling into the wrong hands

Australia recently played host to 12 international teams of robotics experts in a bid to find an automated way of monitoring nuclear fuel for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The IAEA has previously required employees to inspect sites and monitor spent fuel from nuclear power stations, so that none can be diverted to making weapons.

In the future, however, robots could take over the role, said Dennis Frousheger, a senior engineer at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Data61 digital research network, which organised the international robot challenge.

“The challenge was to find suppliers that could enter the supply chain through trials of robots and, in the longer term, play a role in the safeguards process,” said Frousheger.

The robots that were tested operated from boats in four cooling ponds and eight warehouse storage environments, underscoring Australia’s strong international reputation in outdoor robotics used in agriculture, mining and logistics.

Although an Australian team had qualified to participate in the challenge, it was not able to attend, leaving teams from South Korea, the US, Canada, Switzerland, Germany and the UK to battle it out.

Frousheger said the data collected during the challenge is now being analysed prior to further work taking place to enhance the systems.

He said using robots to tackle the often repetitive but demanding task of measuring radioactivity would help the IAEA address the challenge of monitoring an increasing amount of spent nuclear fuel with a limited budget.

“Their funding is not increasing, but the amount of spent fuel is. They have to find a way of being more efficient and cost effective,” he said, noting that IAEA personnel would also be freed to take on other tasks while being spared from conducting nuclear monitoring in potentially hazardous environments.

Andrey Sokolov, technology foresight officer at the IAEA, added: “The robotics challenge aims to test the suitability of new robotic designs to help the IAEA fulfil some of its verification tasks more efficiently, freeing up inspectors to concentrate more on examining how facilities are being used.”

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Alberto Elfes, chief research scientist and group leader for robotics at Data61, said robots have a multitude of game-changing applications across industry, and that there are major safety, productivity and efficiency gains to be made from adopting them.

Zebedee, our high-accuracy 3D laser mapping technology, was commercialised and is already being used around the world by 25 multinational organisations,” Elfes said.

“It was recently trialled by the IAEA in nuclear safeguards inspections. Legged robots, in particular, are a key technology to traverse and sense dangerous or confined spaces in place of humans.”

While robotic automation is clearly beneficial to those in the nuclear power industry, workers such as machine operators and food workers are at risk of being displaced. According to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, up to 40% of the country’s workforce – or more than five million jobs – could be replaced by automation by 2035.

In response to Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ suggestion that a tax be levied on companies that replace human workers with robots, Data61 CEO Adrian Turner had said earlier that such a move was not feasible.

He called for Australia’s workforce to be reskilled so that people would not get left behind, noting that the country cannot turn its back on automation despite widespread fear regarding the looming change.

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