Sunday, March 20, 2011

Robo atomjacks

Suppose that you are in charge of a nuclear power plant - say one that is built on the shores of an island nation that is subject to frequent earthquakes and the occasional flood. 
Some day the planet burps and your plant is shaken up a bit more than usual.  OK, emergency procedures kick in, the reactors scram as control rods stop the chain reaction.  You have no external power due to the earthquake, so you switch on the emergency diesel generators.  Pock pock pock.  All is well, there are some minor issues with damaged valves and piping but in general everything is under control.

Enter a huge tsunami that floods the entire plant, including the diesels, so they go belly-up.  Being a nuclear plant there are batteries to backup the backup generators, but after 8 hours these are empty, and in any case the coolant water inlets are full of flotsam.  Things are literally starting to heat up.

Which phone numbers would you have programmed in your phone?  The fire brigade?  Police?  The Ministry of Energy or whatever?  The army?

I suggest to put the following under 3 on your speed dial: +33 (0) 2 47 98 65 00 .

Groupe INTRA.  Which stands for 'Groupe d'INTervention Robotique sur Accidents nucleaire'.

These a group of boys and girls with a small army of specialized robots to enter the hellish environment of a leaking nuclear power plant to do things like take measurements, clear out debris, manipulate valves, keeping machinery going, possible also drag a water hose to a fuel storage pool that is about to boil dry.  The larger ones are full-sized bulldozers and diggers.  They are all hardened against intense radiation and can be controlled remotely from NBC-hardened command vehicles.

The group can be alerted within an hour and be on site within 24 hours with all their equipment and personnel everywhere in France - did I mention they are French?  They are also ready to intervene elsewhere if a power company has an intervention agreement with them.
Even if your company does not have such an agreement it never hurts to have their number.  You can simply find it on their public website: (English).

INTRA exists since 1988, set up in the aftermath of Chernobyl by EDF, CEA, Cogema and Areva, to offer a better solution than sending humans into a high-radiation environment on what amounted to suicide missions.

If my information is correct, EDF offered the assistance of the INTRA group to the Japanese at a fairly early stage (they later stated that they could have been en route on 16 March) but they got no answer.

I am rather surprised that Japan, the country of toy robots and a highly robotized automobile industry, does not seem to have robotic (or rather, tele-operated) equipment that can intervene in nuclear power plants and, for that matter, in other NBC-risky situations.  Which brings me to the question: who does? 

1 comment:

  1. I can add that there is a similar organisation in Germany, the 'Kerntechnische Hilfsdienst'.