March 2000


Mission to Ukraine

Robot from multiagency collaboration helps deal with Chornobyl’s lingering aftermath

When Joe Herndon was told what the Russian inscription on the monument read, at first he thought it was another instance of official hyperbole.

“To those that saved the world.”

It’s placed on a statue of firefighters located in the city of Chornobyl. The monument is dedicated to those military and civilian firefighters who were killed, or died from, fighting the 1986 fire at the nearby nuclear power complex’s infamous reactor number four.

Herndon, the Robotics and Process Systems Division’s director, has made several trips to Ukraine to coordinate a program to deliver a remotely operated vehicle—a robot—that can inspect areas inside the enclosed and highly contaminated reactor building that are too dangerous for people to go into.
This memorial in Chornobyl honors the firefighters who died fighting the fire in the aftermath of the 1988 nuclear accident, ORNL's Joe Herndon led a project to display robotic equipment at the Ukraine site.

The vehicle, called Pioneer, is the product of a collaboration between U.S. government agencies, universities and private-sector firms to help the former Soviet nation deal with the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Pioneer can also help them learn more, scientifically speaking, about conditions inside the shell previously known as the “sarcophagus”; now known as the “shelter.” The shelter is a concrete structure that contains the remains of the burned-out Chornobyl reactor.

“About 100 people work at the shelter,” Herndon says. “The idea was to develop a robot to map areas where people can’t go, and get data in unknown areas where radiation is too high, even by their standards.”

The Ukranians, Herndon says, accept higher doses of radiation on the job than do their U.S. counterparts. But even they have their limits.

ORNL was not among the original collaborators on the Pioneer project. The Lawrence Livermore and Pacific Northwest national labs helped design and build the robot along with Carnegie Mellon University, NASA’s Jet Propulsion and Ames laboratories and Redzone, a private company that provided some of the robotic equipment used in ORNL’s Gunite tank remediation project.

However, DOE sponsors had much riding on the success of this complex multiorganizational collaboration, especially in that it also involved successfully dealing with counterparts in Ukraine. They asked ORNL’s Herndon and the Robotics and Process Systems Division to coordinate Pioneer’s deployment and demonstration.

“I think they saw the Gunite project and other complex robotics deployment projects RPSD has led—where we have brought together a number of partners—and realized that was the sort of experience the Pioneer project demanded,” he says.

Herndon and Dennis Haley, a section head in RPSD, set to work toward both an intense training program and a cold demonstration program, as well as a demonstration to dignitaries and world press last May. The demonstration showcased how U.S. and Ukraine scientists and engineers are working together on the Chornobyl problem.

One of Herndon and Haley’s problems was learning the different ways and customs of their Ukranian counterparts, which Herndon says was no big deal, and also dealing with the other kind of Ukranian customs.

“We arrived to set up Pioneer, which had been sitting in crates for three months in Ukranian customs. That’s a story in itself. But we put together a team to assemble the robot, train the Ukranians how to operate and how to take and track data.
"The Ukranians don't have a lot, but they find ways to maintain an optimism that is remarkable."
“Pioneer is on a tracked chassis designed to go into areas that are rubble-strewn and otherwise hazardous. We trained the workers there in actually operating the system in such an unstructured environment.”

Photos Herndon brought back indicate they had fun in the process. Pioneer comes equipped with a manipulator arm that can use tools, lay sensors and measure. NASA contributed a 3-D mapping system based on the Mars Pathfinder mission, which provides models of the wrecked facility’s interior. A core drill, also a carryover from interplanetary missions, provides information on how much the radiation inside has degraded the concrete.

The Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant staff have not completely determined which longer-term missions Pioneer will support. “The robot may become quite contaminated when used inside the shelter,” he says. In addition to mapping in the shelter, operational support to the power plant and decontamination and decommissioning tasks are possible.
Ukranian operators in training (below) took a liking to the freshly uncrated Pioneer remotely operated vehicle (above).
Although much of the difficulty in coordinating the project was in overcoming the language and cultural barriers, Herndon came away with a good impression of the Ukranian staff. That new nation, Herndon says, is going through the same economic trauma as the rest of the former Soviet bloc, with the added and protracted burden of the radioactive mess on its hands.

“The Ukranians don’t have a lot, but they don’t have a sour attitude about it,” he says. “They seem to make do, and they find ways to maintain an optimism that is remarkable.”

After learning more about what happened at the Chornobyl accident, he also came away with a better appreciation for the stark monument in the city.

“More than 30 firefighters died from the effects of fighting the fire. The four reactors of the Chornobyl complex are all connected , and the number three reactor, which still operates, is immediately adjacent to the one that caught fire,” Herndon says.

“The accident made whole regions uninhabitable and spread contamination over significant areas of Eastern Europe. What if the fire had spread to all four of the connected reactors?

“‘To those that saved the world’ is probably not a bad inscription.”—B.C.