Students at the University of Missouri-Rolla are programming a robotic arm to retrieve a rod that controls fission reactions at the UMR Nuclear Reactor.
Dr. Akira Tokuhiro, director of the UMR Nuclear Reactor, says manual inspections of the control rod, which are done once each year, present a chance of exposure to low levels of radiation.
"It’s still way under the regulatory legal limit," Tokuhiro says, "but we always want to find new ways to promote safety."
The robotic arm, valued at approximately $100,000, was donated to UMR by Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. Electrical engineering and computer engineering students enrolled in a senior design course at UMR are currently programming the robotic arm to retrieve the rod, which weighs about eight pounds.
Once the robotic arm is capable of removing the control rod from the reactor pool, computers will be able to safely check it for surface pitting, warping and other signs of wear. So far, Tokuhiro says, the rod has lasted 40 years.
Recent tests outside of the reactor pool have convinced students that the robotic arm works, but Tokuhiro says UMR is about a year away from a "live" trial.
In addition to the robotic arm donated by Sandia, UMR students have developed an "I-beam robot" for the reactor. Equipped with a digital camera and an infrared sensor, this "robo-cop" is designed to monitor personnel in the reactor bay area from above by transversing the I-beam on the reactor’s ceiling.
Students are also working on a rover that will be programmed to search surfaces for radioactive fragments and a submersible robot equipped with a radiation-resistant camera. The submersible robot will travel near the core of the reactor, where levels of radiation are lethal to humans.
The UMR Nuclear Reactor is housed on campus to train students and to promote research in nuclear engineering. Each summer, UMR hosts workshops and a camp for high school students who are interested in nuclear engineering and reactor operations.
Tokuhiro says one of the goals of the summer workshops is to address the country’s shortage of reactor operators.
"Only about 60 college students per year get licenses, and only a handful of high school students ever get an opportunity to be licensed," says Tokuhiro, who adds that he hopes the young people attending the workshops will become future reactor operators.
The reactor operations workshops are intensive, and Tokuhiro says only four students can be accepted per session. This summer, UMR will host sessions on July 6-9 and July 22-26.
For more information, call (573) 341-4236.