Cleaning up nuclear waste is an obvious task for robots

Jun 20, 2019

SOME PEOPLE worry about robots taking work away from human beings, but there are a few jobs that even these sceptics admit most folk would not want. One is cleaning up radioactive waste, particularly when it is inside a nuclear power station—and especially if the power station in question has suffered a recent accident.

Those who do handle radioactive material must first don protective suits that are inherently cumbersome and are further encumbered by the air hoses needed to allow the wearer to breathe. Even then their working hours are strictly limited, in order to avoid prolonged exposure to radiation and because operating in the suits is exhausting. Moreover, some sorts of waste are too hazardous for even the besuited to approach safely.

So, send in the robots? Unfortunately that is far from simple, for most robots are not up to the task. This became clear after events in 2011 at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, which suffered a series of meltdowns after its safety systems failed following a tsunami. The site at Fukushima has turned into something of a graveyard for those robots dispatched into it to monitor radiation levels and start cleaning things up. Many got stuck, broke down or had their circuits fried by the intense radiation.

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