DOE unveils system to survey Chornobyl reactor

The Energy Department last week unveiled a state-of-the-art information technology system built to survey the crumbling nuclear reactor site at Chornobyl, Ukraine.

The system, called "Pioneer," consists of cameras, sensors and mechanical arms mounted on a robot that officials plan to send into the reactor to gather data for a virtual reality model of the site. The model would be used to plan repairs of the concrete "sarcophagus" that encases the reactor, which still harbors deadly radiation 13 years after the plant exploded.

Deputy Energy secretary T.J. Glauthier demonstrated the robot Thursday outside the Chornobyl reactor. A second demonstration, for contractors that would use Pioneer, was scheduled for Friday, said Maynard Holliday, a robotics engineer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who managed the project and is now helping to write tasks for Pioneer to perform.

Exactly how and when Pioneer is used depends on how four teams of contractors—from G-8 nations hired to plan the repair work—decide to deploy it. "The Western contractors, at least some of them, realize that in order to do their tasks safely they are going to have to use robotics, and we're part of one of those teams that is proposing Pioneer be used for air sampling, for material sampling, for radiological survey," Holliday said. "The Ukranians are the customer and they have to approve all those plans, so its not clear that they will approve."

Jim Osborn, a senior project scientist with Carnegie Mellon University who worked on the project, said the Ukrainians want to start using the robot quickly. But officials reportedly are concerned with whether deploying the robot will affect employment at Chornobyl. Human surveyors, who still work at the plant, dash into the reactor for a few seconds to take photos, which are the main sources of information officials have about the site.

Attempts to reach Ukrainian officials were unsuccessful.

DOE and NASA spent $3 million on Pioneer, which incorporates virtual reality mapping software used in the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission to collect data about rock composition on the Red Planet. RedZone Robotics Inc., Pittsburgh, supplied the robot, which is similar to one used to clean underground nuclear waste storage tanks at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Silicon Graphics Inc. provided a set of high-powered computers that will process the data the robot collects.

Osborn said systems such as Pioneer can gather more information than humans can, without risking safety. For example, "robots with high reach don't require scaffolding," he said. The marriage of robotics with NASA's mapping technology is "the biggest advance" that Pioneer offers over existing equipment, Osborn said.

Pioneer will not be deployed until late summer, at the earliest, because the United States and Ukraine have to agree on who will own the system. Meanwhile, Holliday said DOE is exploring other uses for the technology for cleaning up nuclear weapons facilities.

"I don't think you'll see another system exactly like Pioneer deployed in DOE, but there is a need for some of [its] specialized payloads," he said.

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