I’ve been swimming in a lot of weird places. Some of them have even been a little dangerous. But I would never, ever, ever go swimming inside of the core of a nuclear reactor, operating or otherwise. Neither would anyone else in their right mind, but it is the job of human inspectors to go out on catwalks over reactor vessels and dip long poles with cameras attached into the water to inspect the vessel’s interior to make sure that nothing evil is leaking out.
This is not a particularly safe nor fun activity, but you know who doesn’t care about safety or funness? Robots.
Photo: GE Hitachi
GE Hitachi’s robot submarine, Stinger, is designed to swim around reactor pools for up to three weeks during maintenance or refueling periods. It’s about the size of a human, and is remotely operated by one, but the places it goes to clean an inspect, no human could survive.
Stinger carries cameras and also a hydrolaser, which in addition to sounding awesome (although it’s really just a high pressure water nozzle), can be used to clean welds as it inspects them, which is a Very Good and Important thing. The robot is clad in a “tungsten frock,” designed to reduce the amount of radiation that it is exposed to. Tungsten is more dense than lead (it’s just about as dense as gold), and was probably chosen because a frock made of platinum, while more effective, would make Singer both lovely looking and entirely unaffordable.
This is all fantastic, but it’s left me seriously concerned about spontaneous self-awareness followed by world domination. Seriously, what would happen if Stinger was going for a swim and this happened:
According to every superhero movie ever, this is how something either amazing or horrific happens, and I don’t think robots would be immune to either one.
The video, by the way, is of a reactor pulse, which happens when control rods are rapidly removed from the nuclear core, which goes from idle (about 100 watts of output for the reactor in the video) to nearly a billion watts of output (!) and back down to idle again in something like 50 milliseconds. The bright blue flash is Cherenkov radiation, with charged particles from the reaction moving through the water faster than the speed of light (in water), exciting water molecules to emit a wave of blue photons.
GE Hitachi says that Stinger is happily puttering around reactor pools performing inspections throughout the U.S. nuclear industry, and there was much rejoicing from all of the humans who don’t have to do that anymore.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.