VIDEO: How Lean Automation Reduces Risk in Manufacturing of Nuclear Fuel Bundles

“There’s no real hazard in handling the product, as it’s more an ergonomic issue,” says Cameco expert.

Nuclear is one of the hottest topics in the energy industry due to its controversial qualities of being both a potent source of energy, as well as highly dangerous. However, advances in the nuclear field are proving that it’s becoming increasingly safe, thanks to lean automation.

In the video above, we talk to Evaldas Zemolochinas, manager of engineering and maintenance at Cameco, about the safety-first approach to manufacturing nuclear fuel rod bundles out of the Cameco facility just outside Port Hope, ON, Canada.

“This is basically a nuclear facility where we assemble bundles and load them with uranium,” said Zemolochinas. “We also operate another facility in Cobourg, where we do the metal processing of zirconium, and where components for the bundles come in.”

Within a fuel bundle, uranium pellets are stacked within zirconium rods, which heat up when the nuclear reaction is active.

“The nuclear reaction creates the heat, which creates steam, which turns a turbine and creates electricity,” Zemolochinas explained. “There is no enrichment whatsoever of the tubes, it’s basically as natural as the uranium dug up in the mines.”

It’s this lack of enrichment which makes it safe for workers to be in such close proximity to the material without requiring extreme safety precautions. Historically, most of the operations performed in facilities like the one at Cameco’s were done by hand.

“There’s no real hazard of handling the product, as it’s more an ergonomic issue that you would see from a radiation perspective,” Zemolochinas explained. “One of the reasons we introduced automation was to improve these ergonomic conditions and remove manual lifting and twisting, because the product is relatively heavy.”

Cameco’s starting point on the path of automation was to introduce lean manufacturing practices into facilities. They looked not just at individual process units, but at the whole value stream and other easy-to-automate applications.

Manufacturers from any industry may imagine lean techniques only pay off in large volume production runs, but even smaller manufacturers can find value in modeling their automation in this way, Zemolochinas said.

“I would say we are a bit unique in terms of our application of lean manufacturing, because if you look at most industries, you’re talking about high mix, low volumes, with a lot of changeovers and different products to run at the same time. In our case, that’s totally different as we run a lot of the same products at volumes that are typically high. We don’t need to worry about some of the hurdles that other industries face. It comes down to streamlining one process and doing it well.”

Cameco manufacturers around a variable of 45,000 bundles a year.

For more information, watch the video above and visit the Cameco website.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.