Coal, Nuclear, Reactors

Robots invade ComEds nuclear operations!

Issue 4 and Volume 99.


Steven E. Kuehn,

Senior Editor

Robots invade ComEd`s nuclear operations!

How?s that for an attention-grabbing headline? Ironically, the fact that robotic tools are making their way into the general operations and maintenance (O&M) activities of a large and often conservative nuclear-based utility is kind of sensational.

Commonwealth Edison (now known as ComEd) operates 12 reactors at six sites in Illinois. On a slow day the utility?s reactors supply 85 percent of its output to its customers and bulk power purchasers. With such a high portion of generating capacity committed to nuclear power, ComEd is completely committed to cost control in an effort to remain competitive with other sources.

What is noteworthy is the fact that ComEd?s senior-level managers are embracing robotics as a means to save O&M money and have begun to mainstream the technology into day-to-day operations.

All of this was revealed at the 6th Robotics and Remote Systems meeting sponsored by the Robotics and Remote System?s division of the American Nuclear Society in a presentation by ComEd?s Peter Hamby.

The meeting, cosponsored by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Electric Power Research Institute, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, British Nuclear Society and the Association for Robotics in Hazardous Environments, attracted a virtual who?s who in the field of robotics. And while the topics ranged from systems operating in the high pressure depths of the ocean to the vacuum of space, the robots that work the inner space of nuclear containment held top billing for many.

Robotics application initiative

According to Hamby, beginning in 1990 ComEd experienced a growing list of successes using robotic devices, video and other remote technologies with most of the work being pioneered at the utility?s Byron Station. A station robotics committee was formed to help guide and expand the use of robotics at Byron, but soon the station began sharing equipment with the other sites.

A key milestone occurred when the Byron committee loaned out robot and video equipment along with supporting technicians to two other sites to assist reactor disassembly, inspection and control rod drive technical issues.

In early 1994, a second milestone was reached, said Hamby, when engineers at Dresden Station purchased video image enhancement equipment and received on-site technical assistance from Byron?s technicians using the equipment to perform a ground-breaking and innovative core shroud inspection. OThe results were so impressive and component integrity issues were so thoroughly reviewed that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted an additional cycle of reactor operation before requiring a major modification.O

Meanwhile, the momentum gained from an impressive string of successes prompted LaSalle, Zion and Braidwood stations to form their own robotic committees to research applications for the individual sites and further promote robotics, video and other advanced remote technologies.

Executive decision

During the same time frame, Byron?s senior executive vice president pledged to ComEd?s Nuclear Operating Committee that he would sponsor the task of advancing robotics with the utility. Soon after, this same vice president proposed that all six sites fund and support a company-wide robotics effort. By August of last year, the Nuclear Operating Committee had voted upon and formally approved the proposal.

Through a series of kick-off meetings it was decided that all equipment would be stored in one place and maintained in a ready state condition. The company also hired a full-time technical consultant to help operate and maintain the equipment and to train ComEd personnel.

The goal is to have all the robotic equipment along with all the necessary maintenance, service and technical support in place and available on a customer OneedsO basis. Typically, these needs, said Hamby, could be outage work or special maintenance, repair and cleaning projects.

According to Hamby, it is going to be difficult to satisfy the needs of all six sites because timing and equipment availability conflicts are sure to arise. Further, the development of new technologies may make some existing equipment obsolete, yet not answer some of the more pressing applications ComEd?s engineers have in mind.

OA major concern of ComEd?s robotics users,O said Hamby, Ois the prospect that mobile robotic capabilities will remain largely within the realm of surveillance, inspection and small parts retrieval.

The fact remains that there are no commercially-available mobile robotic systems on the market that can perform human worker tasks like the torquing and untorquing of fasteners and welding, cutting or grinding operations within the size and environmental constraints of a nuclear power plant. Clearly, many challenges lie ahead.O END

Big Party

During April 1994, ComEd?s Byron plant hosted the Utility/Manufacturers Robotics Users Group meeting. More than 245 members attended with representatives from 20 or more U.S. and foreign nuclear utilities. The semi-formal group is open to anyone in the industry who is interested and requires no dues. The next meeting is scheduled for early June, for more details, contact Peter Hamby at (708) 663-3863.