Robot uranium detectors to enter service

23rd March 2018

A pair of autonomous robots developed by Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute will soon be driving through miles of pipes at the US Department of Energy's former uranium enrichment plant in Piketon, Ohio, to identify uranium deposits on pipe walls.

The CMU robot has demonstrated it can measure radiation levels more accurately from inside the pipe than is possible with external techniques. In addition to savings in labour costs, its use significantly reduces hazards to workers who otherwise must perform external measurements by hand, garbed in protective gear and using lifts or scaffolding to reach elevated pipes.

DOE officials estimate the robots could save tens of millions of dollars in completing the characterisation of uranium deposits at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, and save perhaps US$50 million at a similar uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Kentucky.

"This will transform the way measurements of uranium deposits are made from now on," predicted William "Red" Whittaker, robotics professor and director of the Field Robotics Centre. Heather Jones, senior project scientist will present two technical papers about the robot on Wednesday at the Waste Management Symposia in Phoenix, Arizona. CMU also will be demonstrating a prototype of the robot during the conference.

CMU is building two of the robots, called RadPiper, and will deliver the production prototype units to DOE's sprawling 3,778-acre Portsmouth site in May. RadPiper employs a new disc-collimated radiation sensor invented at CMU. The CMU team, led by Whittaker, began the project last year. The team worked closely with DOE and Fluor-BWXT Portsmouth, the decommissioning contractor, to build a prototype on a tight schedule and test it at Portsmouth last autumn.

Shuttered since 2000, the plant began operations in 1954 and produced enriched uranium, including weapons-grade uranium. With 10.6 million square feet of floor space, it is DOE's largest facility under one roof, with three large buildings containing enrichment process equipment that span the size of 158 football fields. The process buildings contain more than 75 miles of process pipe.

Finding the uranium deposits, necessary before DOE decontaminates, decommissions and demolishes the facility, is a herculean task. In the first process building, human crews over the past three years have performed more than 1.4 million measurements of process piping and components manually.

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