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OM in the News: One Job the Robots Can Have–Cleaning Nuclear Waste

March 3, 2017
A robot designed to gather data and monitor radiation

A robot designed to gather data and monitor radiation

To enter Europe’s largest nuclear site, 300 miles north of London, a visitor must wear a device that rings if radiation levels get too high. Contamination enters the body through open wounds, so any cuts must be bandaged. On the way out, after removing protective gear, a security guard sweeps each person to make sure nothing latched on.

In England’s haste to build a nuclear bomb during the Cold War little thought was given to disposing of the waste, reports Businessweek (Feb. 20-March 5, 2017). In 1957, a reactor fire contaminated the local countryside and a devastating meltdown was narrowly avoided.

Generations later, the government is still grappling with the leftover waste. Hundreds of tons of radioactive material are in the structures, risking leaks into the soil or a fire. The area has been classified an “intolerable risk” for falling short of modern safety standards. This urgency is leading England to seek help from robots. Advances in software and hardware are allowing machines to reach contaminated areas that humans could never survive. The cleanup will cost over $100 billion.

One $600,000 six-legged robot is packed with cameras and sensors to see its environment. A giant pincher on the front grabs contaminated material and breaks it up. Other robots scoop up sludge and drop it into steel containers later placed in silos. Even as robots work to scrub the most dangerous areas, more waste continues to arrive from other plants. Nuclear waste remains radioactive for thousands of years. And governments (including the U.S., Japan, Germany, and France) still don’t have places to store it, even if robots can clean it up effectively. (A 6 minute video on the cleanup process can be linked from the article).

Classroom discussion questions:

1.Why are robots so important here?

2.Is this an operations management issue?

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