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Kevin Bullis

A View from Kevin Bullis

Robots Sent to Help at Nuclear Plant

Should they be a standard part of power plant safety?

  • March 23, 2011

NPR reports that iRobot is sending some of the robots it has developed for bomb disposal to the earthquake-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. The robots may be able to get inside the plant with cameras and radiation detectors to give workers a better idea of what’s going on inside—high radiation levels and other dangers have forced people to keep a distance.

According to the story, this might be just the start of the use of robotics in the aftermath of the disaster at the plant.

Carnegie Mellon University robotics researcher Red Whittaker has assisted with robotic operations at nuclear accidents like Chernobyl. He says after that 1986 accident, at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine, radiation levels were too high for workers to conduct cleanup operations, so remote-controlled robots had to take over …

“I would anticipate that we are going to see a phenomenal enterprise of remote work systems that are brought to bear over the weeks, months and years of recovering Fukushima,” he says.

Radiation levels and other hazards have complicated efforts to get the situation under control, or even allow workers to know what’s going with the levels of water in spent fuel pools. So this seems like a perfect situation to have robots involved. Which raises a number of questions. Why weren’t robots on the site faster? What can robots realistically do, and what can’t they do? Should regulators establish quick response robot teams that can be dispatched overnight in the case of a disaster like this one?

I’ll look into these questions—but if any of our readers have knowledge in this area, it would be great to hear from you.

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