UK ponders drone monitoring of coastal nuclear plant cooling intake systems

drone nuclear plant

Authorities in the UK are examining a request to take a test UAV project live. It would involve extending experimental drone use monitoring coastal nuclear power plants for marine life that risks getting sucked into their cooling tubes to a real, increasingly troubling example of that in Scotland.

The problem centers on the Torness nuclear power facility to the east of Edinburgh. Its ocean-sucking intake vents have been getting clogged by recurring blossoms of marine life like jellyfish and kelp. In addition to that being fatal to the life forms involved, the incidents can cause the station’s temperature to increase to the point where temporary – but very expensive – closure is required. In response, drone industrial services company RUAS has requested authorities to allow it to fly regular drone missions around the nuclear plant to keep watch for amassing sea creatures so preventive measures can be taken to usher them away.

“The issue is, on a regular basis, they are affected by either jellyfish blooms or marine ingress including microalgae, that are blocking the intake of the nuclear power plant,” says the RUAS in a report by the Herald Scotland. “As a result, the reactor overheats due to the lack of water intake which cools the reactor, creating the need for the reactor to be shut down entirely as an emergency procedure. This has implications when they need to reactivate the reactor, which is costly and time consuming.”

It’s unclear thus far just how officials will respond to that obviously business-generating RUAS proposal. But it would certainly fall within the logic of an almost identical project the UK has been testing since July.

The nuclear plant-specific effort was launched as part of the UK’s broader Drone Pathfinder Programme promoting the use of UAV technologies. Under that, researchers have begun assessing “the feasibility of using unmanned aerial systems for the early detection of marine hazards near to coastal industries, such as nuclear power stations.” 

That includes testing beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) missions to permit near-constant monitoring – a mode RUAS is also hoping to employ at Torness. 

“The successful operation of BVLOS will enable us to detect threats from marine ingress at an earlier stage and prevent disruption to the power plant,” says Monica Rivas Casado, a senior lecturer in integrated environmental monitoring at Cranfield University, which has taken a leading role in the trials. “The development of BVLOS is an important step in enhancing the capabilities of environmental monitoring using drones for a varied range of applications.”

Why so much fuss over some jellyfish and kelp gunk? For starters, those and other life forms are vital to maintaining balance in the ocean’s ecosystem, yet they increasingly fall victim to coastal power facilities. One 2005 study estimated a single Southern California nuclear plant killed nearly 3.5 million fish in 2003 alone.  

There’s also the human safety and costs concerns that arise when plants close down from overheating threats. This year the Torness nuclear power plant was forced to to shut operations twice in just one week because of jellyfish influx, costing it about $1.5 million per day. 

As a result, RUAS and other sector specialists are urging officials to put the test project of drone nuclear plant surveillance by drones to the real test in Torness. The additional expense of UAV flights, they argue, would run far lower than shutdown costs, while considerably enhancing safety.

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