The company needed a breathing space to develop a business based on a unique camera and associated software that could produce images of the radiation inside of a nuclear facility.
Engineers at the Japanese Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant are using technology, developed by UK engineering firm Createc, to ‘see’ radiation as they begin the long task of decommissioning the six reactors overwhelmed by the 2011 tsunami.
The N-Visage camera and imaging system creates a 3D model of radiation levels inside nuclear facilities, giving nuclear scientists the information they need to work safely in these very hostile environments.
“We knew it had real potential, but there were significant technical hurdles to overcome. The support we got from Innovate UK was instrumental in making N-Visage happen, especially since we have a culture of ‘bootstrapping’ development projects using our own resources rather than seeking venture capital,” Dr Matt Mellor, managing director of Createc commented.
It applied jointly with REACT Engineering for grant funding from Innovate UK’s Smart programme. This tackles the funding gap often experienced by many small and early-stage companies with game changing, cutting edge innovative ideas and high growth ambition and potential.
“It’s currently being deployed in reactor number two at Fukushima to remotely measure radiation levels so we can tell engineers where the radiation is, what it is, and whether they can safely reuse equipment already there to remove fuel rods from the reactors,” he added.
Lighter, smaller, faster and in 3D
Createc had an idea for a smaller, lighter gamma-ray camera that could be inserted via small openings to produce images of radiation in places where humans couldn’t get to.
The resulting camera weighs ten kilograms, has a diameter of 116mm and length of 700mm. It’s considerably smaller and lighter than previous models thanks to the key innovation of scanning through a sphere. This also enables the camera to get an all-round picture of its surroundings.
Using two cameras in stereo enables the capture of both optical images and radiation readings in 3D, which can be used in conjunction with source mapping software (also developed by Createc) to produce a 3D model of a nuclear plant - showing both radiation sources and surrounding radiation fields.
The new cameras need far less exposure time to generate an image - half an hour rather than 12 hours - greatly speeding up the task of mapping a facility. They can also be retrieved easily and quickly, something that’s much more difficult for older, bigger cameras.
Being able to 'see' radioactive material and radiation fields as 3D images has obvious advantages for companies managing nuclear plants and radioactive wastes.
“It gives operators and decommissioning managers really high-quality data to make decisions – keeping costs down and reducing safety risks - especially since it enables them to see how shielding or removing a source affects the radioactive environment inside a facility,” Matt commented
Big in Japan
Three years on, Createc has doubled its 2013 turnover to £600,000 and taken on 7 new employees – tripling in size. N-Visage is being used at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant and in Japan.
Matt realised it could be particularly helpful in the long and difficult post-tsunami decommissioning process at Fukushima.
“We were delighted by the enthusiasm and interest in N-Visage. We have a £500,000 contract with Hitachi-GE, and are currently doing more work in Japan than we are in the UK,” Matt commented.
Createc has also won a contract to supply N-Visage equipment to the Dounreay nuclear decommissioning site in northern Scotland.
Looking to the future
The company has been awarded further grant funding from Innovate UK to explore solutions to other issues affecting nuclear decommissioning.
“The funding has led to two new projects: D:EEP (with Costain) that enables non-destructive assessment of contaminated concrete; and RISER (with Blue Bear) that’s developing a fully autonomous flying robot to map contamination. Both technologies are attracting a lot of interest in the UK and overseas, particularly in Japan where we hope they will be of real benefit in safely decommissioning the Fukushima reactors.” Matt added.
The future looks positive.
“With Germany alone decommissioning 17 nuclear plants by 2022, the outlook is bright, but we wouldn’t be where we are without the support of Innovate UK. Their grant funding enabled us to reduce development risks to an acceptable level. The result is three innovative technologies that will make decommissioning quicker and cheaper and most importantly, safer,” Matt concluded.