Viewpoint: The future of radiation monitoring

17 June 2022

Remote monitoring technology is no longer reserved for just large-scale nuclear projects thanks to industry-certified commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products, writes Gary Bradshaw, director of radiological surveillance specialist Omniflex UK.

Gary Bradshaw (Image: Omniflex)

If someone asked you to picture a nuclear site, you would probably picture a large facility with the trademark massive cooling towers. However, nuclear sites vary a lot in size, from the six square kilometres of the Sellafield nuclear site to a small nuclear waste store the size of a large garage. Traditionally, the adoption of new technologies, such as remote monitoring systems, was seen as something only suited for large facilities and sites and the smaller facilities and sites were left behind.

No matter their size, all nuclear facilities and sites have the need for radiation detectors to monitor the levels of alpha, beta and gamma radiation in the air, whether they be processing, storage or waste facilities. However, the chances are that most of them are not equipped with any kind of remote monitoring systems, with plant managers often assuming they are too expensive or too complicated to adopt.

This is because traditional nuclear radiation monitoring solutions were not simple to implement. Generally, instruments had to be manually networked to a bespoke panel, requiring a skilled wireman to spend days fitting and testing every unit. Then, they each had to be checked by an external engineer from the regulating authority before being certified for use, which again added days to the installation time.

Furthermore, because the panels were not standardised, any maintenance work required third party engineers to conduct a site visit to carry out repairs, leading to increased downtime and maintenance costs. COTS systems eliminate this complexity, without sacrificing operational performance.

Off-the-shelf solutions

COTS products are ready-made, packaged solutions that are available to be purchased off-the-shelf and can be adapted to meet the end user's specific requirements. These purchases are often alternatives to custom equipment or one-off developments and offer several key benefits for plant managers.

For example, the Omniflex RPN1 radiological protection node, that became increasingly more popular at the UK's nuclear sites over the last decade, is a COTS product that can be installed in minutes. It is standardised to meet ISO 9001 quality levels, so there is no need for additional third-party inspections during the system installation and testing process. This helps to lower the overall project costs, save thousands of man hours of work, reduces the time spent exposed to radiation and, ultimately, get systems up and running faster.

The RPN1 won the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) innovation award in 2016 and helped the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) save more than GBP1 million (USD1.2 million) in project costs while reducing the time spent by personnel in the plant's active areas. The RPN1 units have since been used in many recent projects at the Sellafield nuclear site and are specified to be used on several upcoming new projects.

Furthermore, there are added safety benefits that come from using remote monitoring technology to monitor radiation levels. Because they allow operators to monitor radiation levels from the comfort and safety of a control room without the need to physically go and manually check detectors, remote monitoring systems lower operator exposure levels. Operators can use this technology to view radiation levels across a facility at a glance, enabling them to respond to any issues much more efficiently as well as providing data storage for pre- and post-event analysis.

While systems like this are quickly becoming the norm for big facilities that are fitted with dozens, if not hundreds, of radiation monitors, they are not widely used in smaller facilities that are only fitted with a handful of radiation detectors. This is despite the fact that small facilities and sites, such as nuclear waste stores, can still benefit from adopting these systems.

Furthermore, when the COTS systems in question have already been industry-certified and validated for use in the nuclear industry, the commercial risk requirements are significantly reduced. This means site managers can purchase systems at a lower overall cost and with less paperwork to complete, without worrying about any potential system performance issues.

Monitoring beyond facilities

It isn't only within facilities or sites that radiation levels must be monitored, but also beyond. Facility and site perimeter monitoring systems, commonly known as emergency plume gamma monitoring systems (EPGMSs) are a necessity to keep people and the environment safe in the event of a containment breach.

The primary function of EPGMS systems is to provide critical information to the emergency services in the event of a radiation leak where the plume is moving outside of the facility or site. To that end, they are normally interfaced with meteorological systems since factors like wind speed and direction can determine if nearby populations are at risk of exposure.

Networking EPGMSs using COTS products helps improve safety in the event of a breach because staff coordinating evacuations can easily access live data about the radiation leak in progress. These systems can also be used to notify emergency services of any situation charges that might impact their response. In cases like this, it's clear that the benefits far outweigh the cost of the system.