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Health, Science & Tech

CMU Wades Into Robot-Led Nuclear Site Cleanup

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Carnegie Mellon University
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Autonomous robots could handle and dispose of waste from nuclear sites as part of a robotics traineeship program between Carnegie Mellon University and the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Environmental Management

The five-year program is for up to 20 Ph.D. and master’s degree students.

Funded in part by the department, the new program will focus on how to use robotics to retrieve, process, store, transport and dispose of radioactive material. Additional courses focus on developing autonomous systems and how to utilize the robots within areas where radiation is a concern.

“The goal of the program is to introduce the students to the challenges that can arise, when trying to address some of the issues, or concerns, in the context of environmental management,” said Nathan Michael, an assistant research professor at CMU.

The project's announcement comes just days after scientists acknowledged several robotics failures inside Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant where a tsunami triggered three meltdowns in 2011. Robots were deployed to assess the damage in lieu of human investigators, but intense radiation melted their circuit boards. One safety consultant said it’ll take decades to clean up. 

“Through this specialized curriculum, the students in the traineeship would be able to then understand more clearly the challenges in the domain and how to develop autonomous systems that are able to operate in this type of domain,” said Michael.

As part of the program, participating students will team up with two U.S. Energy laboratories as part of the program, the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C. and the Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richland, Wash.

The program is scheduled to begin in the fall.