Robots versus nuclear waste

Robots versus nuclear waste

Safely disposing of nuclear waste is one of the most significant challenges facing today’s society. Remediating the Fukushima nuclear disaster site in Japan is expected to take 30 years. The UK alone contains 4.9 million tonnes of legacy waste from power stations and weapons production, which will take at least 100 years to clear, at an estimate cost of £220bn. Due to radiation hazards, much of this work will be performed remotely by robots. However, in many cases, the necessary technologies and control methods have yet to be developed. This has become a major research focus for Dr Rustam Stolkin (1993, Engineering) and his research team at the University of Birmingham.

Rustam conceived and leads the RoMaNS project (Robotic Manipulation for Nuclear Sort and Segregation), the largest robotics project funded by the European Commission’s H2020 programme, spanning five labs in three countries. RoMaNS is developing advanced robotics technologies for ‘sorting and segregating’ nuclear waste, in which storage containers, some of which are over 50 years old, are cut open to examine and sort their (often uncertain) contents. This reduces the need for more expensive, manual processing and containment methods, which would only be needed for the most hazardous materials. This, in turn, reduces the financial burden on the tax payer.

There is a an enormous variety of nuclear objects and materials stored in highly unstructured and uncertain environments. This challenge requires progress beyond current state-of-the-art robotic vision, machine learning and AI, as well as novel engineering designs of robot arms and hands. Research into this will enable a new generation of smart robots to assist their human operators to overcome these extreme challenges safely and efficiently.

Much nuclear decommissioning work still relies on humans, wearing protective suits and respirators, entering radioactive zones to carry out potentially hazardous work, such as the remediation work at the Fukushima plant. The aim of Rustam’s research team is to use robots to safely remediate the environment for future generations, thus protecting people from hostile environments.

In recognition of his efforts Rustam has recently been awarded a Royal Society Industry Fellowship, which will fund him for the next four years to be part-embedded within the UK nuclear industry to help lead its development of a new generation of robots. Rustam also leads the major robotics component of the UK-South Korea Civil Nuclear Collaboration, and a new £1.75m project with the University of Essex, who develop radiation resistant electronics and software. He also works with the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, which has unique facilities for testing robots and their sensors under radiation, and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA). Rustam also co-leads a consortium with University of Manchester, a leader in nuclear research, and Bristol Robotics Lab which has won a new £10m project to develop robots for a variety of nuclear applications.

After gaining his MEng in Engineering at Oxford, Rustam earned a PhD in Robot Vision, undertaken between University College London and industry. After a period in the USA, Rustam returned to the UK to work at Birmingham, where he has recently established the Extreme Robotics Lab (ERL) devoted to robotics for ‘extreme environments’ which are too hazardous for human workers. ERL has grown rapidly to reach a steady state of around ten post-doctoral research fellows, and a similar number of doctoral research students. The University of Birmingham is now investing in a major new laboratory facility to house the ERL team.

In addition to his research, Rustam has been active in educational innovation and outreach for many years, both in the UK and internationally. He now collaborates extensively with the Royal Institution of Great Britain, running week-long robotics summer schools for school children, and training young engineers from both academia and industry to deliver robotics workshops to schools across the UK.

To see more about Rustam’s developments in robotics you can watch videos of his early experiments at