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Nuclear Decommissioning Authority turns to Drones for Help

Last updated on

September 1, 2021


    How is Sellafield, Europe’s largest nuclear site, using drones?

    Sellafield is a large multi-function nuclear site close to Seascale on the coast of Cumbria. Activities at the site include nuclear fuel reprocessing, nuclear waste storage and nuclear decommissioning, and it is a former nuclear power generating site.

    The licensed site covers an area of 265 hectares, and comprises more than 200 nuclear facilities and more than 1,000 buildings. Sellafield is Europe’s largest nuclear site and has the most diverse range of nuclear facilities in the world situated on a single site.

    Sellafield has over 10,000 employees – however the UAV team consists of 5 people. Amanda Smith is the head of the UAV team on the Sellafield Site.

    The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has been making extensive use of drones as it works to clean up the toxic legacy of the Sellafield site and other decommissioned nuclear sites — a task it earlier described as “the largest, most important environmental restoration programme in Europe”. Due to drones’ versatile nature, the NDA has deployed them across its sites in order to complete tasks such as the inspection of tall chimneys, pipelines, and roofs. The drones have also been instrumental in collecting high quality imagery and sensors readings from areas containing radioactivity and have even been used to find previously unknown areas of radioactivity.

    We caught up with Amanda Smith from Sellafield to hear about the daily operations that go on at the site and how she manages the UAV team.

    Amanda said: “I never thought I would find myself anywhere near drones, I am an electrician by trade and the opportunity to work with the UAV team at Sellafield arose and I thought it’s an up and coming industry so why not.

    “The Sellafield site is varied, imagine it as a small town. We have tall, stack chimneys, we have ventilation duct work, pipe runs, power lines and we even have our own rivers that run through the site. It is a very mixed bag of inspections that we carry out.”

    What does your UAV team get up to on a day-to-day basis?

    “On a day-to-day basis, our team could be doing external flights. We could start by inspecting one of the stack chimneys. These inspections negate the need for rope access to go up and manually inspect the chimneys. Some of the chimneys are touching on the upper level of the permissions that you can fly to, so we are going for extended permissions to be able to fly further. We are quite lucky that we have got our own restricted flight zone, so it makes life a lot easier when applying for extended permissions!

    Amanda Smith with the UAV team at Sellafield

    “When the team are doing the stack inspections, it’s to make sure that the ventilation stacks are structurally intact and aren’t going to fall down on the site any time soon! We have the civil engineering team – who in the past have struggled to inspect certain roofs due to the issues with accessing them. Now, the UAV team goes up and inspects the roofs to see the condition and if there is any damage  up there. We get a lot of nesting birds on site , so we are able to see the damage that they are doing, or if they will impact any of the work going on at the site.”

    What work are you doing on internal inspections?

    “We have a few of the ELIOS drones. One of the recent inspections we carried out, is what we class as a semi sealed area. It was a historic area of the site that has been closed off for decades.  Historically, areas of plant would no longer be needed and the doors would just be closed leaving these areas in a quiescent state but with little information available of the condition they were left in. What we are doing with the drones, is slowly starting to break those barriers down. We have been able to get into these areas – using the likes of the ELIOS 2, map the areas out, understand what’s in there and understand what radiation and contamination areas might be in there. Then with the data, we can send that data to a group of people who can then plan how they are going to get back into that area and make it accessible again.”

    You can find out more about how the ELIOS 2 can keep your workforce safe below.


    The Falcon being flown at the Sellafield site (Picture credit: Amanda Smith)

    What advice would you give to people surveying around nesting birds?

    “Seagulls are the most horrendous creatures on the planet, those and oyster catchers! What we tend to do at Sellafield is send up a smaller aircraft, such as the Mavic Zoom with one of our pilots. It’s a bit of a decoy – it makes sense though! Why would we use the bigger, more expensive drones such as the Falcon 8 to survey around nesting birds? When we can use smaller drones that will cause less disruption!”

    When checking radiation levels in some of the enclosed areas, are you attaching different recording devices?

    “Each area is completely different – we put the ELIOS 1 in and use it for the contamination side. Essentially, we put sticky pads on and rolled the ELIOS across the surfaces within the area. We’ve just done a trial with the University of Bristol for beach radiation monitoring, they provided us with the equipment and we attach it to the drone, so they can get the understanding of if their systems work. We have also attached a radiation detection instrument to the Mavic Zoom which we flew up close to a wall at about 2 metres distance for about 5 seconds to get a reading, then we retract again.

    What made the site switch from using scaffolding and rope access to using drones?

    “Cost! For us as a site, there is so much going on every day. To put scaffolding around a building, there is so many restrictions in access, the downtime on a plant when we have schedules to stick to, by using scaffolding it takes a lot of time. When we can get a drone in and out in 30 minutes, it reduces our downtime massively. It saves people going up at heights, which links to our strategic site objectives – safer, faster and cost effectiveness!”

    What are you doing with regards to the social economic of the local harbour progress reports?

    “The social economic part of West Cumbria, Sellafield is a huge employer in the area. What we try to do is reach out to the local area as much as we can to try and support in any way we can. The Whitehaven Harbour project, they have got a new building that is going up so are doing a lot of regeneration work. They are putting a new activity centre on, where people will be able to come and do things like kayaking and paddle boarding and loads of sea activities. We are doing the progress reports for them, so we are doing the shots for what the harbour looks like to start with, before the building goes up. We are also capturing the important processes of the build itself to show the changes to the harbour.”

    Picture credit: Amanda Smith

    Tell us about your collaboration with Future Flight Challenge!

    “That is a huge collaboration for us. We are working with a company called, we are one of their test partners. Being in the nuclear energy industry, the future is BVLOS (beyond visual line of site) for us. Being able to command and control a UAV from a site when you are away from the site. We are part of the test team, and we were able to fly one of their UAV’s down in Sussex from our West Cumbria location, 350 miles away! We are trying to work it so we can understand where we want to be in the future, what we can do on the nuclear site. The BVLOS is a massive thing for us, we are looking to get the permission for that and get it into place ASAP. We are also part of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), we would like to make things simple across the NDA. Currently each small area has its own permissions and operations manual, we want to try make things easier and see if we can work collaboratively to make the technology more accessible for people.”

    Want to find out more about drones for internal inspection?

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