BBC Online News / Sci-Tech
November 18, 1998
American engineers are preparing to send a robot inside what
remains of the shattered Chernobyl nuclear reactor.
They want to complete a survey of the installation before an
international effort begins to repair the massive concrete
and steel tomb that now surrounds it.
This sarcophagus, as it is known, was erected quickly in the
aftermath of what was the world's worst nuclear accident.
But, weakened by radiation and the elements, it is now in
danger of collapse.
Were this to happen, radioactive dust and debris would be
thrown into the atmosphere resulting in another
Enter Pioneer, a sturdy robot featured on this week's
edition of the BBC science programme Tomorrow's World. The
machine will be sent to the most dangerous parts of the
Chernobyl plant - places where human operators would get a
lifetime's radiation in just three minutes.
It has a plough on the front to push aside fallen debris and
tank tracks to climb over larger objects. An imposing drill
allows Pioneer to test the structural weakness of concrete.
Crucially, by using spaceage camera technology, the robot
will also be able to construct a three dimensional map of
the damaged power station's interior.
"The 3D mapper takes the three images and generates a 3D
model of the shelter," says Mike Catalan from robotics
company RedZone. "It's basically an extension of the 3D
image system that was used on the Mars Sojourner robot."
These unique images, together with temperature and radiation
data, will help build a comprehensive picture of what the
reactor is now like inside the sarcophagus.
The international community can then make proper decisions
about what needs to be done to make Chernobyl safe.
This should finally end the need for humans to go into the
tomb to carry out emergency repairs. These people, known as
biobots, expose themselves to dangerously high levels of
"There have been a lot of manned entries into the shelter,"
says Bruce Thompson from RedZone. "As times move on, they've
moved beyond that phase. I've heard the Ukrainians say 'now
is not the time for heroics'. It's time to use more remote
But Pioneer's most sensitive systems will also need to be
protected from the intense radiation. None of the important
electronics are on board - they are kept safely inside a
lead-lined room with Pioneer connected to the controls by an
The Chernobyl accident in April 1986 was the result of a
test procedure that went disastrously wrong. More than 30
people died fighting the initial fire and 46,000 people had
to be evacuated from the region within a radius of 10 km
Tomorrow's World is broadcast on BBC 1 on Wednesdays at 1930
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