February 10, 2023

Drones for Decommissioning


The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has responsibility for regulating the safe decommissioning of facilities and sites to meet the License Termination Rule in 10 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 20, Standards for Protection Against Radiation, Subpart E “Radiological Criteria for License Termination.” Decommissioning is performed in accordance with 10 CFR Part 50, Domestic Licensing of Production and Utilization Facilities, as part of license termination (§50.82) and release of the facility or site for unrestricted use (§50.83). The guidance currently demonstrates the minimum requirements and necessary conditions for conducting radiological surveys by a person carrying a radiation detector(s). The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) evaluated the use of an unoccupied aerial vehicle (UAV) to conduct radiological surveys that could be used in decommissioning to potentially reduce time, cost, and worker safety compared to current survey methods. The objective of this project was to evaluate the performance and limitations of a UAV to support a decommissioning radiological survey and compare it to a radiological survey conducted by a human. The primary research questions of interest evaluated were: • Did observed UAV paths differ from human paths and, if so, how much? • Did survey path deviation affect survey results and, if so, how? • Were radiological measurements from human and UAV surveys significantly different? To answer these research questions, an experimental field was set up at PNNL’s 3440 test track, and it included radiological sources commonly surveyed during decommissioning: cobalt-60 (Co-60), cesium-137 (Cs-137), and americium-241 (Am-241). Nine check sources (three each of Am-241, Cs-137, and Co-60) with activities ranging from 3.54 µCi to 39.34 µCi were set over a path that also included an area for measuring background radiation. An Aurelia X6 UAV coupled with a GPS and lidar unit was used to conduct the radiological surveys. UAV and human surveys were conducted using two different NaI(Tl) scintillation radiation detectors ([1] 2 in. × 2 in. Ludlum, Inc. and [2] 2 in. × 0.04 in. Alpha Spectra, Inc.) at a travel velocity of approximately 0.2 m/s at a low (15–40 cm median altitude) or high (87–105 cm median altitude) survey altitude. Since the survey velocity and altitude parameters were atypical for normal UAV operations, testing was done prior to conducting the radiological surveys to establish airworthiness, evaluate the navigation system, and establish flight control. Human and UAV surveys were paired according to the detector type and altitude regime to compare the survey data. The results of this proof-of-concept research determined that the UAV and human surveys followed similar survey paths and detected the radiological sources with no significant statistical difference (in 33 out of 36 surveys). However, further research is needed prior to deploying UAVs for decommissioning surveys.

Published: February 10, 2023


Bunn A.L., K.A. Wagner, D.K. Fagan, H. Gadey, T.A. Ikenberry, K.E. Markham, and M.Y. Obiri. 2022. Drones for Decommissioning Richland, WA: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.