Office of Environmental Management

Idaho Project Explores Virtual Reality to Improve Safety, Work Performance

November 26, 2019

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IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – Once the subject of futuristic movies, virtual reality (VR) technology is being used by an EM cleanup project at DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Site with the aim of reducing potential radiation exposure to workers and improving work performance.

EM’s calcine retrieval project created a VR laboratory to plan for challenges in retrieving the granular, high-level radioactive waste. Calcine is the dried byproduct of a liquid waste generated during the INL Site’s spent nuclear fuel reprocessing mission, which ended in 1992.

In an agreement with the state of Idaho, EM is required to retrieve, treat, repackage, and prepare the 4,400 cubic meters of calcine to ship for out-of-state disposal by 2035. The material is in storage in six separate bin sets inside concrete vaults at the Calcined Solids Storage Facility at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center. The bins are a series of long cylinders, and the number of bins in each set varies.

Fluor Idaho, EM’s INL Site cleanup contractor, is designing a technology that could be used to retrieve calcine from an older bin set and transfer the material to a newer one. The emptied bin set would then be closed in compliance with state and federal environmental laws.

An image created using virtual reality technology shows the below-ground bin sets storing calcine inside concrete vaults at the Calcined Solids Storage Facility at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center.
An image created using virtual reality technology shows the below-ground bin sets storing calcine inside concrete vaults at the Calcined Solids Storage Facility at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center.

The project’s design team worked with 3-D computer models of the facilities where the calcine is stored, based on original construction drawings. Using those models and the VR lab’s newly acquired equipment, the team can place the likeness of engineers, technicians, and management into a virtual mock-up of hazardous areas and simulate the work tasks without the risk of exposure.

“It gives us a more complete picture of the challenges that exist within the bin set and how to overcome them,” Fluor Idaho Calcine Retrieval Project Manager Howard Forsythe said. “Using VR technology gives us a distinct advantage that we wouldn’t have otherwise had even a few years ago.”

Fluor Idaho plans to incorporate VR into more aspects of the project.

Testing of a retrieval system continues on a full-sized replica of one of the bins using a simulated calcine material. Piping and other internal obstacles were added to the mock-up to replicate the actual bin as closely as possible.

In addition to testing robotic and other technologies for calcine retrieval from one bin set, the project is developing a strategy to retrieve and close the five other bin sets. Mock-up testing will help engineers recommend a final end state for the bin sets.

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