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£3 million Dragon’s Den style competition shortlists ideas to clean up old nuclear plants

02 August 2017

© Nuclear Decommissioning Authority

15 ideas have been shortlisted in a £3 million Dragon’s Den style competition to find new ways of cleaning up one of the UK’s largest nuclear hazards.

The shortlisted entries, many of which come from companies that have never worked in the nuclear industry before, now have around three months to develop their ideas for a chance to move on to the next stage. They’ll start fleshing out their concepts on how to safely dismantle a large number of highly radioactive rooms or ‘cells’ at Europe’s most complex nuclear site, Sellafield in Cumbria.

Melanie Brownridge, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s (NDA) Head of Technology, said:

“This competition is an amazing opportunity for creative, forward-thinking and innovative companies to collaborate and come up with cutting-edge solutions for cleaning up some of the UK’s most complex nuclear sites.”

The competition, which is being run by the NDA, and the UK Government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, is awarding an initial £750,000 to a shortlist of 15 newly formed consortia to help them develop their ideas. Full details remain under commercial wraps but more will be revealed when the winners are picked at the end of the year and begin to build prototypes, supported by the remaining funds.

Over the next few years several major plants at Sellafield will come to the end of their operational life, such as the Thermal Oxide (ThORP) and Magnox Reprocessing Plants, which are used to reprocess spent nuclear fuel from power stations across the UK and the rest of the world.

This will mark the start of an important decommissioning challenge to deal with a number of highly radioactive ‘cells’ containing a complex network of contaminated pipes, vessels and several miles of steelwork.

The competition set out to find and fund technology that will clean up the ‘cells’ as safely, quickly and cost-effectively as possible whilst minimising risks to the workforce.

The winning technologies will need to find ways of safely accessing the cells, surveying the contents, cleaning them out and putting the radioactive waste into packages for safe storage. The proposals feature the use of leading-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robots, drones, lasers and specialised remote sensors and detectors.

Although initially focused on Sellafield, the winning ideas could be used to clean up the other nuclear sites owned by the NDA, which date back to the earliest days of the UK nuclear industry.

Melanie added:

“The NDA is continually seeking the best ways to encourage new ideas from the supply chain and ensure everyone has an opportunity to get involved. The response we have had to this competition has been fantastic. We’ve been really impressed by the standard of proposals and the healthy numbers of applicants.

“I’m also extremely encouraged by the high level of interest from organisations outside the nuclear sector, offering highly innovative solutions from industries such as the oil and gas sector, defence industries and even space exploration.”

Derek Allen, Innovation Lead at Innovate UK, said:

“We are delighted to be working again with the NDA as they continue to support innovation to deliver their programme.

“We are looking forward to seeing the integration and demonstration of some of these technologies that will ultimately lead to safer, faster, cheaper nuclear decommissioning. This has the potential to open up significant business opportunities for UK organisations both nationally and globally.”

Notes to editors:

Image – 20817 Innovation.jpg, caption: “cutting edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robots, drones and lasers are being proposed as ways of cleaning up Sellafield in Cumbria – Europe’s most complex nuclear site.”

Shortlisted entries:

A.N. Technology Ltd A Flexible Measurement and Waste Led, Robotics-Based Decommissioning Project
Amec Foster Wheeler Integrated Innovation for Nuclear Decommissioning
Barrnon Ltd Barrnon Integrated Decommissioning System
Cavendish Nuclear Ltd Sellafield In-Cell Decommissioning System (SIDS)
Costain Oil, Gas and Process Ltd. Stabilisation, Excavation and Segregation
Createc Elephants to Ants: Innovation in Integration
Davy Markham Limited Integrated & Transferable Decommissioning Toolkit
Eadon Consulting Limited Versatile Decommissioning System (VDS)
James Fisher Nuclear Limited Hot Hatch Cell Recovery
MDA Space & Robotics Ltd DecomSmart
Nuvia Limited Nu-Decom
Oliver Crispin Robotics Ltd LaserSnake++
Rovtech Solutions Ltd Integrated Keyhole Remote Decommissioning System
University of the West of England Integrated robotic system for characterisation and decommissioning
Westinghouse Electric Company UK Limited Integrated Innovation for Nuclear Decommissioning


Innovation in Nuclear Decommissioning

Since 2013, the NDA and Innovate UK have collaborated successfully with a range of other public bodies to encourage innovative Research and Development projects across the whole nuclear industry. The total investment, including support from the private sector, has reached more than £50 million spread across dozens of projects.

Among those supported were:

  • A flexible robot arm (LaserSnake2) that can slither through narrow openings and, carrying laser cutting equipment, slice up redundant equipment with precision and minimal waste. The deployment of this technology in a radioactive environment at Sellafield was a world first.
  • Dredging equipment developed for the fishing industry but adapted for use to scoop sludge from spent fuel ponds.
  • A sophisticated mapping system mounted on a self-navigating drone to collect vital information from contaminated internal space.

All the above technologies include remote operations from outside the hazardous facilities.

THORP and Magnox Reprocessing Plants

After three-four years in one of the UK’s nuclear reactors, nuclear fuel becomes less efficient and is removed for transfer to Sellafield where it is reprocessed.

The Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) handles spent fuel from the UK’s current fleet of Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactors, operated by EDF, and from overseas customers and is due to close in 2018.

The Magnox Reprocessing Plant opened in 1964 and deals with fuel from the Magnox reactors, the UK’s first generation of nuclear power station. The Magnox Reprocessing plant is the only one of its kind in the UK and will close by 2020.

Nuclear Decommissioning Authority

The publicly funded NDA is responsible for decommissioning and dismantling 10 of the UK’s earliest nuclear sites. These include 11 Magnox-design power stations, research centres, fuel-related facilities and the largest, most complex and hazardous site Sellafield.

Innovate UK

Innovate UK is the UK Government’s innovation agency. Innovate UK works with people, companies and partner organisations to find and drive the science and technology innovations that will grow the UK economy – delivering productivity, new jobs and exports. Our aim at Innovate UK is to keep the UK globally competitive in the race for future prosperity. For further information and to stay updated on our latest news visit, follow us on Twitter at @innovateuk or subscribe to our YouTube channel at

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