Radioactive waste is set to be sorted quicker and managed more safely through a research and development programme between government and industry.

Funded by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the Innovate UK ‘Sort & Seg’’ competition seeks safer, faster and cheaper ways of handling nuclear decommissioning waste, which can pose a risk to humans and the environment if not managed correctly.

The competition has tasked participants with creating an automated solution capable of identifying, classifying, and sorting intermediate and low-level waste with minimal human input. 

Veolia Nuclear Solutions, in partnership with AI firm Faculty, as well as Createc, Mott MacDonald, and the University of Lincoln, are solving the logistical and economic challenges of sorting and segregating low and intermediate radioactive waste generated from decommissioning activities.

The consortium is one of five that has progressed through to the second phase of the competition. 

Faculty brings machine learning and AI expertise to provide directions to the project’s robotic arm and gripper, which will identify, sort, and categorise waste with minimal human input. 

Whilst the amount of radioactive waste in the UK is relatively small, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has previously estimated around 5 million tonnes could be produced over the next century – enough to fill Wembley stadium. 

Much of this is set to come from dismantling existing legacy nuclear facilities, such as Sizewell A and Wylfa, and by cleaning up other existing sites. Currently, some waste still requires manual sorting by staff wearing PPE. 

The competition aims to accurately sort bulk, lower level radioactive waste requiring disposal, whilst increasing overall recycling rates. 

The winning solution will also improve worker safety, increase productivity, reduce costs, and minimise risks to the environment through increasing recycling rather than disposal.

Demonstrations to NDA and Innovate UK will take place in November 2022. Successful models could then progress to trials and subsequent use at decommissioning sites, with potential to be exported internationally. 

The system could also be adapted in other future waste disposal and object sorting systems, beyond the radioactive waste sector.