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Project to develop laser cleaning for nuclear decommissioning

The University of Bristol has been awarded £505,000 funding to develop laser cleaning techniques for the nuclear industry.

The funding has been awarded as part of a joint UK-Japan Civil Nuclear Programme.

Many of the most pressing and complex decommissioning challenges at UK nuclear sites concern the decontamination of radiologically contaminated surfaces.

While numerous methods have been considered to address these challenges, laser cleaning has emerged as a promising candidate to rapidly decontaminate surface-fixed radioactive materials.

This is because compared to the more common nuclear decontamination techniques, such as pressure washing and mechanical scabbling, laser cleaning produces much smaller amounts of secondary solid and aqueous wastes. It can also be deployed remotely through a fibre optic or by a robot, thereby reducing the need for a human operator to enter a hazardous environment to operate a cleaning tool.

Over the next 2.5 years, the new ‘OptiClean’ project will therefore seek to improve laser decontamination techniques in order to reduce their burden, risks and overheads, allowing their adoption to be broadened globally. The project will be undertaken by the University of Bristol and University College London.

Laser cleaned steel. (Image: University of Bristol)

The work will build on an existing laser contamination project funded through the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) Direct Research Portfolio (DRP). This DRP project is led by consultancy firm Eden Nuclear and Environment, with the University of Bristol delivering the experimental work. Equipment and software has been procured from Applied Photonics, Bofa International, Clifton Photonics and IPG Photonics. The French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) has also provided expert advice on laser cleaning equipment, while University of Manchester and the Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials have carried out experimental characterisation of materials to be laser-cleaned.

OptiClean will therefore overlap with the DRP project, with Bristol having already carried out the first laser cleaning experiments, using the new NDA-funded equipment, in October.

The cleaning laser installed at the University of Bristol.

Professor Tom Scott, leader of the OptiClean project and the co-director of science for the Southwest Nuclear Hub at the University of Bristol, said: ‘This is an exciting opportunity to develop a working technology for nuclear clean-up, which is ideally suited for activities at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan as well as at Sellafield and other legacy nuclear sites in the UK. ‘What’s fantastic about this grant is the chance for Bristol and Imperial College to work closely with one of the best universities in Japan, tackling a very important technical challenge for nuclear decommissioning.’

The funding for the project was awarded as part of the UK-Japan Civil Nuclear Programme, which seeks to fund collaborative research applications with UK and Japan-based principal investigators. It is being undertaken by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in collaboration with the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and the Nuclear Safety Research Association (NSRA).

Related article: Underwater laser cutting for nuclear decomissioning