A Changing Nuclear Industry Relies on Connectors
Opportunities are growing for connectors that can withstand radiation exposure.
The term “harsh environment” takes on new meaning when we consider components made for applications that involve radiation exposure. While some of these components must also be able to withstand additional elements, such as ingress by water, chemicals, or particulates, the presence of radiation alone raises the stakes significantly. For the nuclear energy industry, striving to move past the twin specters of Chernobyl and Fukushima, supreme reliability in every piece of equipment is essential as designers create electronics-based solutions for the next generation of nuclear power.
The nuclear energy industry is undergoing a transformation that will bring significant opportunities to connector suppliers. Companies such as LEMO, Fischer, TE, NAMCO, AXON, and Esterline are creating connectors that can perform in energy production and delivery mechanisms, as well as in new devices that are used in plant decommissioning and cleanup operations.
“In addition to the connectors already installed in the infrastructure, our connectors are in the robots that went in to check out the damage in the plants in Japan that were damaged by the 2011 tsunami,” said Steven Lassen, applications engineer, LEMO.
LEMO’s N Series features radiation-resistant and hermetic connectors that can be manipulated by a human hand or a robotic one. In a “glovebox” configuration, a gloved human hand can enter a sealed protected space through a flexible sleeve to make adjustments to equipment housed inside. Glovebox scenarios are used in research facilities and even at the International Space Station.
But an environment such as the post-disaster Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant is too dangerous for humans to approach—yet it must still be managed and ultimately contained. That’s where the robots come in. Any electronic connections that need to be made in this environment need to be easily handled and directed by a robotic arm.
“We design the connectors that go into a ‘hot cell’ area with a guiding system that has more range. That could mean a ledge to help guide the mating connector into position, a V-shaped alignment key that helps make the connection, or a high contrast visual indicator that an operator can see through a camera to help guide the robotics,” said Lassen.
LEMO’s N Series remote handling connectors are made from radiation-resistant stainless steel with PEEK insulator material and EPMD sealing glands. They are designed to withstand high temperatures and high voltage, and in addition to the standard electrical contacts, are available with a number of options such as thermocouple or fluidic/pneumatic contacts.
Telerobotic mechanical arms and fully autonomous robotics can withstand radiation and enter spaces that human workers cannot. Radiation-hardened drones, such as the RISER drone inspection system, can help technicians evaluate a contaminated space from a safe distance using 3D mapping technology, a laser scanner, and camera with 4K video capture. All of these innovations depend on connectors.
Fischer Connectors’s nuclear interconnect range is used in robotics and custom solutions for the nuclear energy industry. This line includes sealed and hermetic connector solutions, and connectors for radioactivity measurement. Fischer favors premium grade 316L stainless steel for these connectors because it resists corrosion and radiation, making it an ideal material for decommissioning equipment. The connectors have been designed for easy handling to minimize operator involvement; users can also operate the connecting solution remotely, using a teleoperator or robot in hazardous or contaminated environments. A square block base makes it easy for a robotic arm to grab and direct these rugged and durable parts even under extreme conditions.
Around the world, nuclear facilities are reaching the end of their lives as they pass half a century of service. The intensive decommissioning and cleanup process takes decades and involves extensive equipment to complete nuclear waste disposal and decontamination of the site. This is creating a robust market for connectors that can perform in these roles.
TE Connectivity’s Deutsch DCIN Series connectors are designed to work in pressurized water reactors in K1–K3 zones to allow secure connection to qualified electrical equipment such as sensors, transmitters, limit switches, and sensitive control equipment. They provide radiation resistance, as well as seal against humidity, thanks to a hermetic solder flange resistance.
While many countries, especially in Europe, are making plans to transition to other energy sources, others are making new investments in nuclear power. In an effort to move away from carbon-based energy sources, Saudi Arabia is in the process of evaluating bids to build two nuclear reactors, with plans to build 17.6 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity by 2032, the equivalent of approximately 16 reactors. Around the world, new power plants are under construction, in countries including United Arab Emirates, Russia, China, Korea, India, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and others, and innovations include the world’s first floating nuclear power plant in Russia.
Although over the last decade there has been a lot of negative publicity about the generation of power using nuclear energy, it is not going to go away. Decommissioning efforts and the building of new and safer facilities will continue to provide opportunities for connectors that can handle these rough and hazardous conditions.
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