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NIST Technology Called Upon to Clean Up Chernobyl Disaster Site

For Immediate Release: August 17, 2010

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Contact: Mark Esser
301-975-8735

A modified version of the RoboCrane®, a unique floating platform developed by manufacturing research engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), will be helping cleanup operations fly into action over the destroyed reactor number four at the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine. PaR Systems, a company based in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., owns a license to use the computer-controlled roving tool platform in the area immediately surrounding the exploded reactor core.

On April 26, 1986, a confluence of a variety of factors and errors caused a massive power surge resulting in a core explosion at reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine in the former Soviet Union. The core explosion released a plume of highly radioactive material into the atmosphere and necessitated the evacuation of nearly 340,000 people from the surrounding areas. The International Atomic Energy Association and the World Health Organization state that 31 people died of injuries sustained during the explosion and estimate that 4,000 additional cancer deaths may be attributable to the release of radioactivity.

The G-7 countries, the European Commission, and the Ukraine government decided to replace the hastily constructed “sarcophagus” that presently covers the crater with a more robust shelter in 1997. Construction on the shelter, which will house and support the tool platform and other instruments related to the cleanup effort, began in 2006.

Developed at NIST in the 1990s, the Modular Suspended Manipulator,* expands upon the principle of a Stewart platform, a device that uses three sets of paired winches (motor-driven spools of cable) to suspend and manipulate a platform with six degrees of freedom (lateral, longitudinal, vertical, roll, pitch and yaw). Stewart platforms are most familiar for their use as the base of flight simulators. (See the NIST RoboCrane project summary.)

PaR extensively modified the nine cable version of the Modular Suspended Manipulator to create a kind of mobile tool resembling a pencil stuck through a slice of pizza. Cables are affixed to the top end of the pencil, or spine, as well as the pizza, the triangular platform, enabling the whole assembly to not only move freely through the air, but also make complicated stylus-like motions. (Hold a pencil at its midpoint with the point down between thumb and forefinger and place the other forefinger on the eraser. Move the pen every which way to get an idea of how the machine moves.) The design’s precision maneuverability throughout a large space and ability to be outfitted with a large variety of tools make it ideal for this type of application.

The company will affix a variety of interchangeable tools to the end of the spine, including a robotic arm, drill, jackhammer, shear, high-power vacuum system, and closed circuit television viewing system, all of which will be operated remotely.

* J.S. Albus, R.V. Bostelman and A.S. Jacoff. Modular suspended manipulator. United States Patent No. 6,566,834, May 20, 2003.