On 26 April, 1986, an explosion in Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant plunged the former Soviet Union into one of the worst disasters of the nuclear age. 32 people were killed, hundreds critically injured and the after effects are still felt around the world.
Whilst Chernobyl has largely faded from public memory in the West the situation inside reactor 4 is once again becoming critical.
Following the initial crisis, a 27 story concrete and steel `sarcophagus’ was built around the reactor to contain radiation. This structure, which was designed to last for thirty years, is already showing severe signs of decay. Holes in the roof allow rain and snow to seep into the facility, lethal gases are drifting out into the atmosphere, and contaminated water pooling beneath the facility is now threatening the main water source for the city of Kiev. Researchers fear that even a minor earthquake could cause the `sarcophagus’ to collapse, releasing huge amounts of radiation.
With some parts of the reactor still emitting up to 5000rads/hr, it is virtually impossible for humans to carry out repairs safely, which is where a joint-initiative between companies including SGI, RedZone Robotics, Westinghouse and others steps in.
The strategy centres on a remote-controlled robot called Pioneer, which (equipped with an assortment of sensors, lights, cameras and drills) will provide its operators with high-resolution images of the situation inside the reactor.
At the heart of this vision system are three Silicon Graphics Octane workstations and a Silicon Graphics Onyx2 visual supercomputer. Using this equipment, the robot will create a 3D virtual reality map of the building, showing cracks, faults and any signs of deterioration, thus eliminating the need for people to perform reconnaissance tasks.
From a lead-lined control room near the reactor core, operators will drive Pioneer through the reactor, taking images, measurements and samples and relaying information down a 100m cable to an Octane system which will convert 2D video images onto a 3D surface mesh.