Design Engineering
Showcase 2020

Wearable Technology Applications for Nuclear Decommissioning Workers

Design Engineering MEng
Dr Rebecca Stewart
Breaking Barriers

The Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) required to work in a radioactive contaminated environment is expensive, uncomfortable and a potential area for a user-led design process to provide innovation. Talking with users, I found that a key area of concern was heat illness, caused by the elevated core temperature whilst wearing a restrictive air-fed suit. To combat this, a prototype wearable system was proposed, which tracks physiological data and uses machine learning based models to calculate core temperature, as well as relaying that information to the worker and supervisor.

 — Wearable Technology Applications for Nuclear Decommissioning Workers

Problem Area

Decommissioning is an end-of-life process for nuclear facilities, during which the area is disassembled and cleaned to a point, where people can safely enter it without wearing any protective equipment. Though often expensive and uncomfortable, PPE is required throughout the process to prevent contact with, or inhalation of, radioactive materials. Since this is a very niche area with complex needs, advanced wearable technology, such as that applied in construction, often cannot be used. This leaves an area for innovation, particularly if a user-lead design approach is employed.

After initial research, which involved interviews with people in this industry and a visit to Imperial’s CONSORT research reactor, I found that the key concern was the risk of heat illness. Since equipment, such as the air-fed suit, restricts heat loss due to radiation or convection, the core temperature of the worker rises as they use it. If unchecked, this can cause heat illness or fainting in the decommissioning area, so a way of tracking core temperature would greatly aid the industry.

 — Wearable Technology Applications for Nuclear Decommissioning Workers
Diagram of proposed wearable core temperature tracking system.

Proposed Prototype

The proposed prototype uses wearable sensors at multiple parts of the body to track 2 key physiological variables – skin temperature and heart rate. To ensure synergy with current systems, the system was discussed at length with industry experts and design considerations were made to make the system easy to put on and able to withstand moisture in the suit. A model is used to calculate the core temperature. Exertion data was also gathered throughout the prototyping process, as the development of a model more adapted to decommissioning may be possible.

Data about the core temperature is relayed back to the supervisor, preventing the worker from keeping this information to themselves. When the core temperature rises above 0.5 or 1°C, an alarm is triggered, signalling to the user via light or sound cues to watch their temperature or to come out of the area.

 — Wearable Technology Applications for Nuclear Decommissioning Workers
System Diagram. Example data taken from datasets created by Eggenberger, et al., 2018

Next Steps

This prototype is now ready to move to the next stage of development – a full prototype for testing the human factors and data modelling elements of the design. It is hoped that this system will have effects in both the decommissioning industry and industries that face similar problems.


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