Nuclear: extreme robots

In acquiring the US company Kurion in February 2016, Veolia has broadened its portfolio of services to the nuclear industry. Last December, Kurion, Asteralis and Alaron, the Group’s companies specializing in facility cleanup and treatment of low and medium-level radioactive waste, were combined into a single entity under the Veolia name.
The essential
Cleanup and decommissioning of legacy nuclear facilities adding to high volumes of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste and treatment of this waste
Identify safe treatment solutions to enable cleanup and maintenance operations in high hazard environments
Veolia's response
Provide an integrated offering for the nuclear sector, based on a broad portfolio of cutting-edge technologies and customized services, notably including advanced robotics expertise
Published in the dossier of January 2017

Veolia’s Nuclear Solutions business line is a leader in the field of robotics, an efficient method of accessing and handling low and intermediate nuclear waste in settings with radiation levels that prevent human intervention.

Protecting radiation workers

The aim of robotics is to address the challenges of radiation. “Our primary mission is keeping workers out of hazardous conditions,” says Matthew Cole, Vice President of the Access Business Unit specializing in robotics. “Ionizing radiation is a particular hazard that is unique to the nuclear market. In other industries, it’s possible to turn equipment on and off and reintroduce humans into the area once it is safe. Because the radiation hazard at nuclear facilities can be so extreme, it’s often unsafe for humans to be present for any length of time.” To address the nuclear waste cleanup and facility decommissioning needs of its customers—primarily power companies or government organizations—Access creates equipment that enables tasks to be performed remotely. Frequently, this involves the use of robotics, although Matthew emphasizes that the approach is broader than that. “We view ourselves as a remote handling solutions provider,” says Matthew. “All facilities are unique and we need to determine how to get inside a tank or a nuclear facility to clean it up and create the set of tools and equipment to accomplish the job.” In addition to its expertise in robotics and equipment design, the Access team has developed an advanced understanding of the nuclear hazards environment: contamination, security, risks of leaks, quality of materials, and health effects of radiation. Specialized knowledge regarding control of contamination and materials is applied at high visibility sites such as Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and the UK’s huge Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing and nuclear decommissioning site.

Treating complexity

Access also has significant operations in the US, where it has particular expertise in long reach systems capable of handling large, heavy loads. In the UK, special capabilities have been developed around highly dexterous handling systems that enable the operator to execute precise movements in confined spaces. Access’ arsenal includes tools for cutting, cleaning, handling, repackaging and inspecting to handle situations ranging from underwater repairs to fuel debris retrieval from damaged reactors.
Competitive advantage, however, is about more than offering a catalog of technologies and cutting-edge tools, notes Matthew. “Our most important quality is our experience. We not only deliver equipment, we deliver a decommissioning approach that leverages our expertise and experience. We’ve worked on such a wide variety of facilities and situations that we’re able to quickly recognize good and bad solutions. In other words, the equipment itself can’t solve the problems the market faces. Instead, our indisputable scientific and technological credentials in terms of properly integrating and deploying that equipment is what distinguishes us from our competitors.”

We view ourselves as a remote handling solutions provider. All facilities are unique and we need to create the set of tools and equipment to accomplish the job.
Matthew Cole, Vice President of Access

Unique know-how in managing sensitive sites

The Access team works in close collaboration with Veolia’s other specialist subsidiaries, such as SARP Industries, Veolia Water Technologies and GRS Valtech. It rounds out an already solid offering in terms of sensitive site management and refines a global approach to the life cycle of low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste. The services offered by Access to the nuclear sector are set to be developed to increase the safety of operations and maintenance in other strategic sectors of activity for the Group: decommissioning end-of-life facilities, particularly in the oil and gas sectors. The team continues to innovate, looking at new technologies and approaches, developing software and engaging in virtual reality modeling. Additional projects are focused on new mechanical and hydraulic systems and assessing the radiation tolerance of equipment. The ultimate quest? Being able to replace a human with a machine having equal capabilities. “It’s easy to underestimate a human’s dexterity, intelligence, high visual acuity and ability to handle small and large items in this constrained environment,” says Matthew. “And being able to do it cost-effectively. That’s the Holy Grail.” 

Nuclear cleanup: a high added-value market

The value of the global nuclear decommissioning market, including the disposal of radioactive waste, is projected to grow substantially. Many nuclear sites will be shut down and decommissioned in the next 30 years while others will be extended, requiring the treatment of contaminated equipment. We know that more than 50% of the global market is in the US, Japan, the UK and France, countries in which Veolia’s expertise and skills are already recognized. With the creation of its Nuclear Solutions business line, Veolia is the only group offering a comprehensive range of services and technologies to clean up and decommission facilities and process low- and intermediate-level radioactive nuclear waste.