It’s a dirty job, but someone needs to do it.
The United States has millions of gallons of hazardous radioactive waste buried beneath the surface at Department of Energy facilities around the country. The byproducts of World War II and a Cold War nuclear weapons race are laying there, contained in metal or concrete tanks the size of swimming pools, awaiting treatment and disposal.
It’s a discarding process that began in the 1940s and lasted throughout the Cold War. U.S. decision makers pumped radioactive waste into tanks stored underground. These containers, it turns out, corrode over time, posing an existential threat to the surrounding soil, groundwater and environment at large.
So how do you monitor radioactive tanks deep underground for cracks, breaks and other damage?
You send a robot to do it for you. A group of FIU students is working on how to do that right now.
“There may be areas in a nuclear facility where gauges are hard to reach or are in a dangerous area. With the use of robotics and AI, we can get to those areas. It can make the whole process safer for the operators,” says Roger Boza ’18, a Ph.D. student studying artificial intelligence.
For this work, Boza and two other FIU Panthers recently won a top three finish at a virtual International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) competition as part of a global team.
The challenge was to come up with something that would make decommissioning nuclear facilities safer and reduce risk to workers and the environment. The FIU team partnered with two students from Norway and one student from the United Kingdom to form a multidisciplinary international team.
The FIU team’s approach: Combine robotic platforms with artificial intelligence in order to make robots that can detect defects before they become problems. It’s a strategy that the university has been researching for years as part of a cooperative agreement with the Department of Energy (DoE), which was renewed last month for $22 million over five years.
“Picture a nuclear facility undergoing decommissioning. Picture workers having to enter areas with high levels of radiation. In order for a human to go in there, they have to put on layers of personal protective equipment. It’s a whole process. But with our robotic platforms, it's easier and safer. You can send a drone in there to relay information back to a human in a safe location," says Daniel Martin, an electrical engineering major and the team leader for the IAEA challenge.
The FIU researchers have multiple robots in their arsenal. One is designed to crawl down pipes. Another looks like a rover and uses magnets to climb up and down walls.
Normally, the team would be invited to display these artificially intelligent machines in-person, where they and the other top-three teams would be judged by the IAEA to determine first place. This year’s meeting was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Samanta Rodriguez ’20, a recent engineering grad, says that collaborating with international students on the project was a good way to learn about the greater nuclear remediation industry.
“It was really nice. We saw different perspectives on how they manage their interactions, and we got to see different topics of research related to what we are working on,” Rodriguez says.
Overseeing the project on FIU’s side was Professor Leonel Lagos MS '96, Ph.D. '07, who has been studying nuclear waste management and environmental remediation for nearly 20 years at FIU.
Lagos was hired full time by the university after earning his master’s in mechanical engineering. Now a director of research, he is helping to train the next generation of experts in this niche field.
“The work is interesting for me. You’re doing something that is good for the environment and good for the world. It’s a national security issue. We have to get rid of this nuclear waste, even if it takes several decades and billions of dollars,” Lagos says.
“At the end of the day, we need to clean the environment due to decisions made not by us, but during World War II. Now, it’s for the next generation to clean that up, literally, and make it a better environment for everybody.”