Can robots solve the nuclear problem?

The controversy surrounding the restarting of nuclear reactors in Japan following the Fukushima disaster and the excellent programme by Jim Al-Khalili on Sellafield have sparked some interesting discussions about how robots can solve some of our greatest industrial and business challenges.

Despite all the talk about how artificial intelligence will destroy the human race and how intelligent automation is replacing human jobs, I was heartened to see a programme that also looked at the opportunities they can bring.

Although in my youth I joined anti-nuclear campaigns, over the years I have come to see nuclear energy as the most effective antidote to climate change. Taking the numbers killed by nuclear weapons out of the equation, the numbers killed and harmed by peaceful nuclear energy are tiny compared with the number killed and harmed by cars on our roads – and we won’t be banning cars any time soon.

A safe solution for nuclear waste?


But the big problem, as the Sellafield programme highlighted, is what do you do with the waste? And even more important, what do you do with waste that was dumped in huge “ponds” where is its slowly deteriorating? At the time that was thought the best thing to do and there was little thinking about how to manage a problem for future generations. Now the problem has to be tackled.

No-one really knows how big the problem is and both media and government are under or over-playing the risks. So what do you do when you have a substance that is too dangerous for humans to handle but has to be tackled? The heroic team that tackled Fukushima just after the accident set an example that no one should have to follow.

Robots can create new jobs for humans

robots for nuclear waste

Well, enter the robots. They can go where no human can go and, unlike humans, they come in all shapes and sizes and can be tailored to their environment. The BBC has some fascinating footage of the submarines that have been adapted to work in a radioactive environment. They can be designed to suit any situation and can work round the clock in a way that no human can.

Once again we are seeing the positive side of intelligent automation. It is being used to tackle jobs no human can, or should do, and is also creating jobs in the new industries that are springing up to meet the needs of the nuclear decommissioning industry.

Is intelligent automation the future?

The costs of this will be high but the spin-offs potentially enormous. The same could be said of all the work that has gone on at NASA. You can argue that this work is more important than NASA – after all did we really need to go to the moon?

We do need to deal with nuclear waste and intelligent automation may be the only way.

The costs will be high but the learning will be huge.