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The laser nuclear decommissioning cutting and concrete scabbling using the latest technology

Paul Hilton, Ali Khan and Colin Walters

Paper published in Nuclear Engineering International, vol. 55. no. 672. July 2010.

The difficult task of decommissioning nuclear facilities could potentially be made simpler as a result of TWI's recent success with a high power laser. As the world's nuclear facilities reach the end of their working lives the problem of their decommissioning has prompted engineers to look at implementing novel techniques in many aspects of nuclear decommissioning.

TWI's team of Paul Hilton, Ali Khan and Colin Walters has recently shown that size reduction of metal pipework and concrete scabbling for removal of contaminated surface layers can be conducted in a safe and efficient manner by using a remotely operated high power fibre laser. Use of such lasers offers many potential benefits over alternative techniques, such as minimal secondary waste generation, low reaction force and flexibility of use.

In March 2009, the UK's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority awarded TWI Ltd a contract to develop prototype equipment for demonstrating how the twin processes of concrete scabbling and tube cutting might be implemented for remote use in nuclear decommissioning environments. The goal of the project was to allow Site Licence Companies and supply chain companies to evaluate the technology in terms of both process capability and capital/operating costs, mindful that the underlying technical issues had already been addressed.

Contaminated concrete and pipework present major decommissioning challenges in terms of the huge volumes of material to be treated, the radiation levels present and the number of facilities affected. The topics are highlighted on many occasions in Lifetime Plan (Technology Baselines and Underpinning R&D) documents for Sellafield, Dounreay and Magnox North for example.

Several concrete decontamination techniques have already been evaluated and whilst water jetting or mechanical scabbling are currently the favored options, each has drawbacks in terms of significant secondary waste generation (high pressure water jetting) and require extensive deployment systems (mechanical scabbling).

Concrete decontamination by means of laser scabbling has the potential to avoid the above drawbacks. However, whilst the technique has already been demonstrated at a laboratory scale, to date, no representative scale demonstration has been provided which would give industry confidence in the technique.

Although pipe cutting has been performed on numerous occasions, most of the techniques used are either slow to operate or are not ideal for remote deployment in highly active cells. Lasers are well suited to remote cutting due to their light and compact process heads. There is no reaction force between the head and the item being cut and they generate limited fume. However, as with scabbling, the process needs to be adequately demonstrated before active deployment will be seriously considered.

Industrial lasers

A key parameter in most laser processes is the power density in the beam applied to the surface of the material in question. The two processes of concern in this article are unusual in that laser cutting requires a very high power density in the beam, whereas laser scabbling requires a relatively modest power density.

An industrial fibre laser was chosen for several reasons; it had to be suitable for both roles, it needed to be robust and compact, and appropriate in remote applications using optical fibre delivery of the laser beam power. The laser chosen has an output power of 5kW, adequate to demonstrate both processes, but the same type of laser is commercially available in powers up to 30kW. Whilst lasers of such power present no additional operational or safety issues, capital costs do become very significant.

In a fibre laser, the laser light is generated inside a small diameter optical fibre, some tens of metres in length. This fibre is connected to the beam delivery fibre, which is of the 'plug and play' type and easily interchangeable. The delivery fibres are well protected in a flexible metallic armored sleeve. Such fibres can be manufactured up to several hundred metres in length, without appreciable losses in delivered power. The high value laser generator could therefore be located well away from the actual nuclear decommissioning activities so avoiding any risk of contamination and enabling the unit to be reused in future projects.

The fibre laser produces light with a wavelength of about 1micron, so it is invisible to the human eye, being in the near infra red part of the spectrum. The performance of the laser was monitored using a laptop computer, which also provided detailed information about the operating status of the laser. Control of the laser was from the controller of the deployment system in use, in this case an articulated arm robot.

Single-sided laser cutting

Laser cutting is a very well established manufacturing process which accounts for the largest use of high power lasers. The majority of work performed involves cutting material up to about 20mm thick, with exceptional quality of the resulting edge, on a wide range of metals and other materials. Tube cutting is also performed commercially, but almost all of these systems rotate the tube under a stationary laser beam. For single sided tube cutting with a laser beam, a definite requirement for decommissioning activity, alternative systems are required.

The laser light arriving at the cutting head down the optical fibre first expands as it leaves the fibre and is then made parallel by a lens. Below this lens, a second lens then focuses the laser light to a very small spot to create the power density needed for cutting. The system used in this work is unusual in that its focusing lens had a focal length of 500mm. The effect of this was to produce a very narrow beam of light, with a large depth of focus.

This large depth of focus makes a major contribution to the process of single sided tube cutting. The laser beam is enclosed by a cutting nozzle and a nozzle tip with an exit diameter of about 5mm.

In contrast to conventional laser cutting, for tube cutting, the laser beam focus is positioned about 90mm below the tip of the nozzle, allowing tubes up to 170mm in diameter to be cut from one side. The cutting process is assisted by a high pressure jet of air, which leaves the nozzle concentric to the laser beam. This compressed air is necessary to blow away material in the kerf of the cut melted by the laser beam. It is particularly important for single sided tube cutting in achieving separation of the tube.

This cutting system was also equipped with a video camera which looks directly through the cutting nozzle. It is focused at approximately the same point as the laser beam. This is useful for remotely positioning the cutting head above the tube to be cut. For the work described here, the cutting head was manipulated by an articulated arm robot Figure 1. All movement of the process head, and hence the laser beam, switching of the compressed air and control of the laser, was achieved through the single robot controller. Figure 2 shows the system cutting a coaxial stainless steel pipe.

Fig. 1. Cutting head mounted on articulated robot arm
Fig. 1. Cutting head mounted on articulated robot arm
Fig. 2. Cutting speed as a function of laser power
Fig. 2. Cutting speed as a function of laser power

Using this equipment various options for single sided tube cutting were possible. As a material representative of much of the pipework requiring decommissioning, 304L stainless steel was chosen for the trials. Tubes from 25mm diameter to 170mm diameter, with a range of wall thicknesses from 1.5mm to 11mm, were cut using single pass, two pass and multiple pass techniques.

Generally speaking, a two pass technique proved the most efficient. From examination of the cut edge of a tube, it is clear that the quality of the cut at the side closest to the cutting head is much cleaner than the opposite side. This is because, on the first pass, most of the energy in the laser beam, and the assist gas, are used to cut material originally contacted by the beam.

Only laser energy and gas which have passed through the upper section of the cut are available to address the lower section and this is cut less effectively. For the second pass, a kerf has been previously opened in the top section and now the majority of the laser energy passes through this and acts more effectively on the lower section of the tube.

As an example of performance, Figure 3 shows the dependence of the maximum cutting speed at which the tube is severed as a function of laser power, for a tube of 155mm diameter and 1.5mm wall, during two pass cutting. Note that the cutting speed appears to be linear with applied power, at least up to 5kW.

Fig. 3. Cutting speed as a function of laser power
Fig. 3. Cutting speed as a function of laser power

The optimum assist gas pressure was about 8bar. Figure 4 shows cut sections from 60mm diameter tube, with wall thicknesses from 1.5 to 11mm, again for two pass cutting. Process parameters are given in the figure caption. The largest tube to be cut in this work had a diameter of 170mm and a 7mm wall. However this is not believed to be a limit for the technique. Given sufficient time for repeated passes of the laser head, it is believed that even structural steel items, such as 'I beams', could be cut. Work to demonstrate this capability is currently ongoing.

Fig. 4. Cutting 60mm diameter tube. 4.6kW laser power, 8bar assist gas pressure
Fig. 4. Cutting 60mm diameter tube. 4.6kW laser power, 8bar assist gas pressure


Top left: Wall 1.5mm Speed 1000 mm/min

Top right: Wall 4.0mm Speed 350mm/min

Bottom left: Wall 8.7mm Speed 150mm/min

Bottom right: Wall 11.1mm Speed 100mm/min


Another possibility demonstrated was the cutting of concentric tubes. For example, a 25mm diameter tube located inside a 60mm diameter tube. In this case a two pass technique was effective in severing both tubes at once.

To demonstrate the tube cutting process a demonstrator was assembled at TWI consisting of a closely packed array of 25-150mm diameter tubes, mounted in various orientations, see Figure 5. Using the cutting head mounted on the arm of a conventional robot this array was demolished in 15 minutes using over 50 separate cuts through both tube and fixtures Figure 6.

Fig. 5. Tube cutting demonstrator before cutting
Fig. 5. Tube cutting demonstrator before cutting
Fig. 6. Tube cutting demonstrator after cutting. Completion of the tube cutting took 15 minutes
Fig. 6. Tube cutting demonstrator after cutting. Completion of the tube cutting took 15 minutes

Concrete scabbling

In the laser scabbling process, the laser beam is applied to the surface of the concrete and its energy is absorbed, heating the concrete matrix and the concrete aggregate. Expansion of residual water vapor, probably in both the matrix and aggregate and differential expansion between aggregate and matrix, causes the concrete to break up in a highly energetic fashion, leaving a rough scabbled surface, consisting of matrix and aggregate.

In any effective use of this process for decontamination, clearly the laser beam must move with respect to the concrete surface and the ejected debris must be contained. In this work, the former was achieved by the use of an articulated arm robot and the latter by enclosing the process and using a large pump and filtration system to recover the debris. The scabbling head showing its major components can be seen in Figure 7.

Fig. 7. The scabbling head and its essential components
Fig. 7. The scabbling head and its essential components

In the scabbling system, the laser light was fed, via an optical fibre, to a set of optics similar to that used for laser cutting, although in this case the focal length of the lens used was much shorter, at 150mm. The laser light is brought to a focus at a small diameter aperture and then allowed to diverge to a diameter of about 60mm at the base of a debris recovery tube. This tube, about 150mm in diameter, was terminated round its circumference by a steel wire brush, in contact with the concrete surface. The aperture and the region through which the beam passed below the focusing lens were both protected by jets of compressed air (at pressures less than 5 bar).

On this system the air pressure and any possible concrete dust contamination of the optical elements were continuously monitored. If contamination occurred a warning signal was automatically generated. After some 200 hours of operation no evidence of dust contamination has yet been seen thereby giving confidence in the design of the optics system protection devices.

The top of the aluminium tube was connected to a long flexible hose and then to a pumping system which removed the concrete debris as it left the surface of the material, see Figure 8. The complete scabbling head was mounted on the arm of an articulated robot, which was itself mounted on a linear gantry some 6m in length. The scabbling process and effective debris removal requires the process head to be at all times, roughly perpendicular to the concrete surface and for the wire brush seal to be contacting the concrete.

Fig. 8. The effects of laser scabbling over treated concrete
Fig. 8. The effects of laser scabbling over treated concrete


Top: Floor paint

Left: Grease

Bottom: Emulsion paint


The six axes of motion offered by the robot allow this to be achieved. However, the scabbling head was also equipped with its own vision system. A combination of low power lasers and a camera were mounted on the side of the scabbling head. The information recorded by the camera is interpreted by software and the results fed back automatically to the robot controller. In this way, once a scabbling start point has been set and a scabbling area defined, the vision system and its feedback to the motion controller of the robot, automatically maintain both the attitude of the head perpendicular to the concrete surface and a constant stand off distance, as the scabbling process proceeds.

A 16kW motor powered the vacuum system which removed the concrete debris. Air is sucked in at the base of the scabbling head, through the wire brushes. This air draws the concrete debris into the flexible tube and down to the first stage of an enclosed separation process. Concrete particulate matter was deposited in a first container and concrete dust was collected via a filter, in a second container. The body of the pumping unit also contained two additional filter housings capable of containing HEPA filters. The efficacy of the debris removal system was high, with hardly any scabbled material remaining on the concrete regardless of its orientation.

For a given laser spot size on the concrete, the main process parameters are the laser power and the travel speed. Work performed has indicated that removal rate is proportional to laser power, at least up to the 5kW of power available with the laser being used. A slower process speed will generally result in a deeper scabbled section. At 5kW power, this system has removed a square metre of material to a minimum depth of 10mm in a time of 110min. A single pass of the process results in a scabbled 'trough', lenticular in section. This shape is related to the energy distribution in the incident laser beam, which at the concrete surface, is Gaussian in form. A degree of track overlap is therefore necessary to ensure a specific minimum depth of removal is achieved.

For concrete containing limestone aggregate, the deepest section has been measured at 22mm, using a laser power of 5kW and a travel speed of 100mm/minute. For removal of large surface areas, a track overlap of 50% proved to be the most effective for producing a uniform scabbled profile. Re-scabbling over an existing track is possible, and does result in increased removal. However, in multi-pass processing of the same track, the amount of concrete removed was seen to drop at each successive pass. For example, at 5kW laser power and 300mm/minute travel speed, the maximum depth of scabble recorded for three successive passes of the beam was 10mm, 18mm and 22mm, respectively. Surface contaminants such as grease and paint had no effect on the scabbling process, see Figure 9.

Fig. 9. Concrete debris collection system
Fig. 9. Concrete debris collection system

Scabbling tests on alternative forms of concrete with granite and basalt based aggregates indicated that the process does not work as well as in the case of limestone. Although in both cases some scabbling does occur the operational envelope appears to be more restrictive then for limestone. A full understanding of the underlying reasons for this does not yet exist, however granite appears to have a high tolerance to heat input and so does not shatter like limestone, whereas the basalt, if heated too much, will melt. It is therefore imperative to fully charactrerise the concrete in question before considering active use of the laser scabbling process.

Equipment costs

The approximate capital costs of the equipment used in this project are as follows. Note that the first five items are relevant to both scabbling and cutting after which the costs listed relate to items specific to either scabbling or cutting.

- 5kW fibre laser and beam switch £280,000
- Chiller unit £10,000
- 6 axes robot (if used) £35,000
- Air compressor £7,000
- Control systems £5,000
- Scabbling head £36,000
- Debris collection system £13,000
- Vision system (if used) £25,000
- Cutting head £20,000

Next steps

A key component of the NDA awarded project was to ensure that the as many potential end-users as possible were made aware of the results. To this end a series of demonstrations were providing during early 2010. Presentations were given at a number of industry events and result including photographs and videos have been made available via various websites. Significant interest in the technology has been shown by a number of companies from both UK and elsewhere. TWI is therefore in discussion with a number of organisations regarding further trails to extend the operational envelopes and also to investigate possible active deployments. Options for producing a suite of laser based tools are also being investigated with various equipment manufacturers.


For concrete with a limestone aggregate, a 5kW laser will remove a square metre of surface to a minimum depth of 10mm in under two hours. Coverage can be increased by either reducing the depth of removal or by increasing the laser power. For other types of aggregate, which show less reaction to the laser than limestone, scabbling is not as effective and further work is required to optimise performance. A very effective and efficient system for cutting of stainless steel pipes and other fixtures/fittings has been developed. The cutting head is both lightweight and has a significant tolerance to variations in the distance between the head and the items being cut. The unit is therefore relatively simple to deploy and operate remotely.


The authors are grateful to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority for funding the work reported in this paper and for giving permission for its publication. The assistance of Matt Spinks and Paul Fenwick in conducting the trials is also acknowledged.

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