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Together with other cooperation partners, researchers at KIT are developing robotic systems to automatically separate radioactive contamination from carrier materials and thus optimize the dismantling of nuclear power plants.

An end to radiation

On April 15, 2023, the last three German nuclear power plants - Emsland, Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim 2 - were taken off the grid, putting an end to nuclear power in Germany. However, this is not the end of the story, as nuclear power plants cannot simply be demolished, they must be carefully dismantled. Of the 33 decommissioned nuclear power plants in Germany, only three have been completely dismantled to date. For example, the successful dismantling of the first nuclear power plant, Niederaichbach in Bavaria, turned out to be a time-consuming and cost-intensive process that took 20 years and cost around one billion euros. The dismantling of the remaining 30 power plants will therefore keep Germany busy for decades to come. The demolition of the non-radioactive cooling towers at the beginning of the dismantling process may appear to be the most work done, but it is only just beginning. The contaminated areas of the power plant have to be milled off and measured by hand. This is not only tedious and very laborious, but also dangerous in terms of radioactive contamination. "Nowadays there are semi-automated areas of decontamination, such as autonomous room recordings or machine-protected steps, but so far there is no system that performs automated decontamination and thus makes the work of the personnel easier," reports Siavash Kazemi, academic assistant in the Department of Dismantling Conventional and Nuclear Structures at the Institute of Technology and Management in Construction (TMB) at KIT.


Dennis Hartmann sits at a laptop and controls the GammaBot standing in the background.
The GammaBot developed by Dennis Hartmann scans and measures the rooms within a nuclear power plant. The data is compiled in a 3D environmental model, which forms the basis for the subsequent decontamination. (Image: Amadeus Bramsiepe / KIT)

The dismantling by robots

Together with a consortium from research and industry, Kazemi is working within the ROBDEKON competence center on autonomous and semi-autonomous robot systems for decontamination in hostile environments. "On the one hand, radiation exposure during decontamination is and remains an issue, but can at least be checked by means of clear specifications and measurements. On the other hand, the physically difficult work involved in manual milling is a problem. With ROBDEKON, we want to address precisely these two points. Our robot systems take over the physically difficult work in a hostile environment and thus relieve the strain on staff both physically and in terms of health," says Kazemi, explaining the focus of the project. The team is working on a closed-loop chain for decontamination and is developing two robotic systems for this purpose: the GammaBot and the DekontBot.

The mobile platform DekontBot.
The DekontBot is a mobile platform that can be equipped with two different structures and is used, on the one hand, to mill contaminated areas and, on the other hand, to measure the clearance of the treated areas. (Image: Amadeus Bramsiepe / KIT)

The GammaBot is a small mobile environmental detection platform that will initially be used to scan and measure the rooms inside a nuclear power plant. "Thanks to a 3D laser scanner, the robot can autonomously explore the interior of nuclear facilities and create a 3D model of the building structures it has captured. It also uses a built-in scintillator probe to measure the local dose rate in order to find contamination sites," explains Dennis Hartmann, former research assistant at the Institute of Anthropomatics and Robotics (IAR), who built the GammaBot and continues to develop it as a research assistant at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences (HKA). The data collected in turn forms the basis for the use of the DekontBot in the second stage, which is being built by Kazemi. He explains: "With the DekontBot, we have developed a mobile platform that can operate safely and automatically in confined spaces using integrated sensors and can be equipped with two different tools: Firstly, with the milling tool to mill out the contaminated areas, and secondly with the contamination array to subsequently measure the treated areas free."

With the help of an integrated safety system, the researchers enable safe operation of the systems. For example, both robots have safety sensors that detect people in the area and prevent a collision by stopping the robots immediately. The DekontBot also has additional safety sensors that measure the inclination of the platform, for example, to prevent it from tipping over. Contact sensors on the milling tool ensure that milling only takes place when there is contact with the wall and localization sensors on the contamination array avoid contact with the wall during clearance measurement in order to prevent damage to the sensitive detector foils and avoid any further possible contamination.


Siavash Kazemi arbeitet an den Bauteilen des DekontBot.
The construction of both robot systems is unique and individual. From hardware to software to programming the automation algorithms, the researchers have created their own developments. (Image: Amadeus Bramsiepe / KIT)

Full decontamination ahead

In the first phase of the project, the competence center's consortium developed the teleoperated, semi-autonomous and autonomous demonstrators into practical system solutions. The basic features of the GammaBot and the DekontBot have been developed. In the second phase of the project, which is currently ongoing, the focus is not only on completing the two robot systems but also on piloting them. "Thanks to the wide range of partners within the competence center, from specialist personnel with know-how to industrial partners such as suppliers of power plants, we have the best prerequisites for bringing our robot systems from research into practice. Thanks to the close practical relevance, we can test our developments on site and demonstrate that they work in reality. For example, we are planning to test the GammaBot outside the control area at the Mühlheim-Kärlich nuclear power plant over the next few weeks to show that it can find its points autonomously, perform a scan and also connect the scans," explains Hartmann.

Over the next few months, the researchers will be working on completing missing components and improving communication between the systems. The aim of the ROBDEKON project is to make the competence center permanent. Whether spin-off or service, there are various possibilities and these need to be defined in order to bring the research into application. For the researchers, the added value of the competence center is already crystallizing. "With our robotic systems, we can optimize future decontamination. On the one hand, they support the personnel by taking over the physically heavy work and, on the other hand, minimize the risk of coming into contact with contaminated dust. This allows us to create a safer working environment when dismantling nuclear power plants," says Kazemi.


Further links


Images: Amadeus Bramsiepe / KIT

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