A chat with Koji Okamoto, Professor at the University of Tokyo, and lead of the NEST Advanced Remote Technology and Robotics for Decommissioning (ARTERD) project
Ensuring nuclear skills and education is an increasingly important challenge for NEA member countries, all of which need new generations of scientists and engineers for the continued safe and efficient use of nuclear technologies for a wide range of industrial, scientific and medical purposes. In this context, the NEA Nuclear Education, Skills and Technology (NEST) Framework was launched in 2019 with the collective effort of ten NEA member countries in order to build up skills vital for the future of the nuclear sector through multilateral co-operation.
The NEST Advanced Remote Technology and Robotics for Decommissioning (ARTERD) project works on the decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. It has been dedicated to remote technologies for decommissioning under intense gamma-ray radiation environments by utilising advanced digital applications such as robotics and virtual reality.
The project kick-started with a series of online education activities that took place in September-October 2021 and looks forward to welcoming Fellows once international and cross-border travel recovers in 2022. The NEA spoke with Professor Okamoto, who leads the NEST ARTERD project, on the NEST Framework and its objectives.
Tell us about the NEST ARTERD project: What does the project do and what key challenges does it aim to address?
The ARTERD project aims to train young researchers who are interested in the use of remote operation and robotics technologies for decommissioning.
The decommissioning of the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Station is an important project not only for Japan, but for the entire global nuclear sector. The high-radiation areas inside the reactor buildings and containment vessels are not accessible due to fuel debris and contamination. For this reason, robots that can endure high radiation levels have been developed to safely extract degraded fuel debris by using remote control systems.
To carry out this complex decommissioning project, researchers have to take a holistic approach and look at decommissioning activities through various perspectives and disciplines. Exposing the NEST Fellows to such wide range of hands-on training activities at the intersection of robotics and decommissioning will provide them with unique knowledge, competencies and skills in a domain which, if solutions are found, would be a breakthrough for the future of decommissioning.
Could you elaborate on these hands-on training activities?
The NEST Fellows who will participate in this project will be exposed to a complex real-world situation that combines remote robotics and sensing technologies. First, the Fellows will use a simulator that mimics the environmental conditions inside the damaged reactors. Thus, they will learn how to work with a radiation detection system with remote control for 3D visualization of radiation distribution in the environment. In other words, the Fellows will learn the state-of-the-art technology on remote Instrumentation and Control (I&C) system for nuclear power plants.
Learning remote nuclear reactor instrumentation and control systems and working across different disciplines could be really challenging for the Fellows. But it will surely provide them with some unique competencies beyond decommissioning in working with many other applications in extreme environments, such as space and deep ocean.
In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing the nuclear sector today? And what could be done to overcome this challenge?
The Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power station accident severely impacted the public’s trust in and perception of nuclear technologies, especially in Japan. However, we believe that nuclear energy will be a crucial part of a net zero future. And public trust could be regained worldwide through a better understanding of the effectiveness and the safety inherent in nuclear systems.
Rebuilding people’s trust is also necessary to attract students to the nuclear sector so they can become the next generation of experts, who not only have broad technical knowledge of nuclear technologies, but also an awareness of the multi-disciplinarily aspects of nuclear power. While basic engineering knowledge is essential, in a continuously evolving world, we cannot neglect the sociological aspects of nuclear energy.
We agree that the next generation of nuclear experts should be equipped with a wide range of skills and knowledge. How does the NEST Framework help with that?
As nuclear technologies are complex and perpetually improving, being exposed to various perspectives is very important for future engineers. NEST provides a platform for Fellows across different cultures, disciplines and educational backgrounds to connect with and learn from each other. The framework also creates a global network and allows for collaboration at the institutional level.
Young researchers and students represent the key players for a future sustainable world – and by bringing them together, initiatives like NEST can become triggers for change and lead to breakthrough discoveries.