Could ‘Iron Man’ style suit be the answer to the world’s biggest nuclear challenge?

If wearable technologies are the future, a radioactive-busting robotic suit could represent yet one more dramatic step into the beyond.

The University of Bristol has won a contract from Sellafield Ltd and Innovate UK to consider using novel wearable technologies for nuclear decommissioning workers.

As the lead organisation of a consortium including National Nuclear Laboratory, DZP Technologies, Imitec and Lightricity, the University of Bristol (UoB) has been awarded funding to carry out a feasibility study on a “Wearable Robotic Suit for Nuclear Decommissioning Operators”. UoB’s concept is for an “Iron Man” type of suit which incorporates a wearable exoskeleton and a protective body covering made from composite materials.

Compared to the current situation of workers wearing air-fed PVC suits, an exoskeleton offers the possibility of overcoming physical body stresses associated with awkward working positions, while composite materials may be easier to decontaminate and provide better shielding of radiation. Other technologies to be evaluated by the project include eye movement tracking, for better detection of worker fatigue; printable electronics, to avoid wiring in the suit; and hand-mounted systems for improved detection of radiation and nuclear materials.

UoB’s project lead and co-director of the South West Nuclear Hub, Professor Tom Scott:

“Sellafield is one of the biggest nuclear decommissioning challenges in the world, predicted to last 100 years and costing tens of billions of pounds.

Robotic and remotely-deployed technologies are already helping the Sellafield mission, but there will always be some cases where human workers are required to do hands on work in hazardous plant areas. Our wearable suit concept offers the prospect of major improvements in worker protection and enhanced ergonomic capabilities.

Our concept has comparisons with how space suits were developed in the 1950s; space and nuclear are both safety-critical industries. As space suits enabled transformational outcomes, making it possible for humans to go into space, further development of our suit could result in game-changing improvements in decommissioning safety and performance at Sellafield.

The suit could even be used at other nuclear decommissioning sites across the world, consistent with HM Government aims for the UK to be a global leader and established exporter of waste management and decommissioning markets solutions. We look forward to delivering our project report to Sellafield Ltd and Innovate UK in early 2019.”

Further information

Sellafield Ltd.

Sellafield has been nearly 80 years in the making. A pioneer for the UK’s nuclear industry, it supported national defence, generated electricity for nearly half a century, and developed the ability to safely manage nuclear waste.

Each chapter of Sellafield’s history delivered great benefit for the country while creating a complex nuclear clean-up challenge for which there are no blueprints.

Today, Sellafield covers 6 square kilometres and is home to more than 200 nuclear facilities and the largest inventory of untreated nuclear waste in the world.

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