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Robots in Radioactive Environments

Or as President Bush liked to say "Nookuler"

The folks working on the first atomic bombs pretty much defined telerobotics in this country. They had no other way of working with the radioactive materials. They used pure mechanical coupling for their telerobotics. The operator would stand on one side of a thick, leaded glass window while the robot manipulated the material on the other side. Cables, bands and tubes provided the coupling. Before long, these systems were carefully engineered with counter balancing and very low friction surfaces. The mechanical coupling provided natural force feedback. I had the opportunity to use one of these systems at Oak Ridge National Lab and it was far superior to any modern, motorized, electronic telerobotic system I have tried (and I have tried very many of them). I would recommend the use of these manual systems in any telerobotic application where it is not necessary to project the control beyond the next room.

The robot at right was developed for the decontamination and dismantlement of nuclear weapons facilities. It has two six-degree of freedom Schilling arms mounted on a five-degree of freedom base. As the facilities used to develop our country's nuclear weapons enter their 50th year and beyond, we now have to dismantle them and safely store the waste. The radioactive fields makes this activity too hazardous for human workers so the use of robotics makes sense. The idea for this robot is that it can hold a part in one hand and use a cutting tool with the other; basically stripping apart the reactor layer by layer (something like peeling an onion). As the robot works it too will become contaminated and radioactive and ultimately need to be stored as radioactive waste.

The graphic at left is a conceptual depiction of a robot arm mounted on a mobile base checking drums filled with radioactive waste for leaks. The question of what to do with our radioactive waste is a hotly debated topic. The idea of storing it in warehouses and monitoring it with robots for the next 100,000 years (if necessary) makes sense to me. We might as well admit we have it, monitor it logically and hope that future generations will figure out something to do with it; perhaps re-reacting it into a less dangerous state.  Another proposed alternative is to bury it; which to me seems insane. Over the course of centuries it is bound to leak from its containers and ultimately into the ground water. Because it would be buried and almost impossible to monitor, we would not know about the contamination until the damage was huge, and then it would be extremely difficult to get at because it was buried. Another proposal is to use space craft and launch the material into the Sun. Who thinks of these things? Please don't mess with the Sun!

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