Spot the dog? No, we couldn't either because Spot is a robot employed by United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority

Plans to send remote devices to work at 70-year-old decommissioned nuclear power station may not be so barking


Tired of doing parkour on the internet, robots from Boston Dynamics have been deployed at UK nuclear facilities to carry out routine tasks in dangerous environments.

The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) has held a three-day trial of Boston Dynamics' four-legged Spot at the decommissioned Calder Hall nuclear plant in Sellafield, northwest England.

In the hope these devices may become something more useful than social media sensations, UKAEA worked with Sellafield Ltd, which runs the site, to see if the mechanical quadrupeds could carry out routine tasks like inspections, mapping, data capture and characterisation in high-risk radioactive environments where humans should take precautions.

"The four-legged robot is able to perform autonomous missions and can be controlled remotely via an operator, which significantly improves safety by allowing the robot to enter hazardous, contaminated areas in lieu of a person," the publicity material says.

The demonstration is "all about understanding Spot's capabilities and limitations in order to enable us to make decisions for the future uses at Sellafield," said Sellafield Ltd remediation capability development manager Chris Hope in an accompanying video.

Edwin Matthews, head of technical and new capability remediation at Sellafield Ltd, said: "For remediation at Sellafield, there are the decommission elements and there are the waste management elements. A platform like Spot would be really beneficial to us in terms of being able to get to places that either humans can't go in, or they can't spend the same amount of time in."

The video shows Spot lift itself up to "view" an archaic dial on a piece of ageing nuclear machinery.

Createc worked with the team to integrate sensors and payloads on the Spot platform to allow the machine to perform "real-world tasks on site," said Will Newsom, head of nuclear engineering at Createc, a small business based in Cumbria.

The video or publicity material did not detail what real-world tasks, if any, were completed or attempted during the trial.

The basic Spot hardware was reported to cost around $75,000 per dog, sorry, unit. It is unclear who funded the trial or how much the UK authorities paid for the units.

Sellafield Ltd, Boston Dynamics and UKAEA have been contacted for comment.

Sellafield has in fact been home to the UK nuclear industry since 1948 as facilities there supplied plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The video shows Spot climbing stairs, going into dark halls and traversing scattered debris in Calder Hall power station, which began life in 1954, under the ownership of Windscale Works before being passed to the UKAEA.

It housed four Magnox reactors capable of generating 60MW of electricity each, reduced to 50MW in 1973. The power station closed in 2003, with one of the reactors in operation for 47 years.

De-fuelling and removal of most buildings at Calder Hall is expected to take until 2032, followed by a care and maintenance phase from 2033 to 2104, 150 years after it was built. ®


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