Virtual reality software that plans the safe decommissioning of nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities could save industry millions of pounds, according to its inventors.
The software package, based on the work of University of Leeds engineers, lets planners work out the best way of breaking up and packing contaminated equipment while minimising workers' radiation exposure. It also shows in minute detail how radioactive waste can be stored in the smallest possible space, reducing the number of long-term storage containers needed.
"Independent commercial contractors have estimated that just packing this waste efficiently could lead to literally millions of pounds being saved from the public purse," said Professor Richard Williams of the University of Leeds and co-inventor of the software. "This type of cost saving should accelerate the safe decommissioning of nuclear installations."
The software is based on a general modelling tool that shows how oddly-shaped objects fit best together. Most other software packages used to solve packing problems can only handle simple and regular shaped objects - a scenario that does not reflect real life problems as accurately.
It is also able to take into account the properties of the material that is being packed, for example, its level of radioactivity and how hard it will be to cut.
The software package, launched commercially today, is based on research led by Professor Richard Williams and Dr Xiaodong Jia. It has been developed by the University of Leeds spin-out company Structure Vision Ltd.
Prior to its release, the NuPlant software was tested by several industry partners for a variety of applications. In one of these trials, conducted at the UK's Low Level Waste Repository at Drigg, Cumbria, the software showed how the number of containers needed to transport and store racks that had held irradiated waste materials could be reduced by a third, simply by changing the way they were cut up.
The software is also expected to be used when nuclear reactors are being designed. In the UK, proposals to build new nuclear reactors have to include detailed decommissioning plans. These reactors could be needed for power plants, scientific research, or the commercial manufacture of radioisotopes for medical scans.
Neville Chamberlain, CBE, Chairman of the Structure Vision Board, said: "Previously when nuclear reactors were built, the cost of disposing of contaminated plants safely when they reached the end of their operating life was never a major concern. This software tool will help engineers design new reactors with cost-effective decommissioning in mind."
Dr David Knight, Director of Software Development at Structure Vision Ltd said: "By providing not only accurate cutting and packing simulations, but an entire decommissioning project planning tool, project engineers will for the first time be able to see the whole picture of their liabilities and directly compare the impact of different approaches to dealing with intermediate- and low-level waste from complete nuclear facilities."
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