'Robotic snake' performs nuclear plant welding repairs

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The snake can be deployed and operated remotely inside hazardous, difficult-to-reach environments in nuclear fusion powerplants. (Image: UKAEA/RACE)

The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) has demonstrated a ‘robotic snake’ technology that uses laser welding to perform repairs inside of fusion energy powerplant pipework.

The now patented technology, developed at UKAEA’s RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) facility within a £2.7 million, seven-year project, can be deployed and operated remotely inside hazardous, difficult-to-reach environments. 

The project formed part of the flagship DEMO programme carried out by EUROfusion, a consortium consisting of experts, students and staff from across Europe collaborating to realise fusion energy, co-funded by the European Commission.

'In fusion machines, pipework has to be connected and disconnected remotely because of the hazardous environment,’ said Tristan Tremethick UKAEA’s lead mechanical design engineer. ‘Pipework in DEMO is extra challenging because of the limited working space. We’ve been looking at different ways of tackling this and I’m delighted our new snake has passed its first set of trials.

'The bespoke laser welding tool takes a novel approach and operates inside of the pipework to make best use of the cramped space available. At RACE, we pride ourselves on providing complete solutions to enable operations and protect people in challenging environments, and this is another exciting result on our path to delivering fusion energy.'

The project also involved creating an ultrasonic sensor-system to move the snake up and down the pipe to identify each precise working location. The snake then clamps to the pipe and performs the weld from the inside, after which it retracts so it can be removed from the pipe and be redeployed.

‘Robots are a key part of our mission to deliver low carbon fusion energy, and we need to become skilled in controlling machines like this one remotely,’ said Tremethick. ‘That’s because they will be used to maintain fusion energy power plants. We won’t be able to send people in, robots will keep them running – it’s the future.’

The RACE project has also developed a laser cutting tool operating on the same principles as the snake and both can potentially be used for other industry applications.

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