Shirley Perez, a robotic arms operator, center, and EM Assistant Secretary Monica Regalbuto, right, listen to a briefing on the new robotic arms to be installed in EM’s Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project this fall.

AMWTP employee Shirley Perez checks out features of new robotic arms to be installed this fall to help with legacy waste cleanup.

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho – Shirley Perez may be the most excited person ready to get her hands on new robotic arms when they are installed in the EM Idaho Site’s Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project (AMWTP) boxlines this fall.

   Perez is certified to operate the robotic arms and supercompactor in AMWTP, a transuranic waste treatment plant at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex (RWMC), where she has worked since 2004. During that time, Perez estimates she’s cut, ripped apart, and smashed more than 2,000 containers of transuranic waste that came to the Idaho Site from the former Rocky Flats Plant near Denver, a weapons facility EM closed in 2006 after completing a complex environmental cleanup project there.

   “That’s the best part of the job, being in control of a robotic arm that can break things up into smaller pieces,” Perez said. “We operate in pairs, with our partner watching and recording every container that we break apart. Who wouldn’t love being able to be productive while flattening containers?”

   EM is working to better leverage technology development to reduce time and life-cycle costs associated with its cleanup across the DOE complex. EM focuses on the use of robotics in some of the cleanup’s most hazardous, challenging environments. The program believes there is an important role for robotics in monitoring, and detecting abnormal conditions, and conducting cleanup, reducing the potential for human exposure to hazardous operations.

   Built by a Swedish company, the Idaho Site’s robotic arms will replace existing older model arms that have operated over the past 12 years to help with the treatment of the legacy waste. The arms are located in the AMWTP Treatment Facility’s boxlines, huge concrete and metal hot cells where the containers of radioactive waste are opened and sorted without exposing workers to the hazardous materials inside.

Perez says it takes three months to qualify as a robotic arms operator and at least another three months to become proficient in moving them and using the shear and super clamshell tools designed to perform different functions.

   “We’re very skilled in the operations of these arms,” Perez said. “Even to the point where we’re able to turn the individual pages of a magazine with the super clamshell tool.”

   EM plans to replace other key AMWTP equipment, including portions of the conveyor system that moves drums, the robotic computer control system for the cranes and drum lidding machines, and new components for the ventilation system, as funding permits.  

   While the ripping and smashing work will continue with the new robotic arms, Perez is most looking forward to the ease with which the arms’ tools can be changed.

   “When Assistant Secretary Monica Regalbuto visited in mid-June, she asked what was the hardest activity operating robotic arms,” Perez said. “Hands down, it’s changing tools on the current arms. It’s a difficult, multi-step process, about as easy as standing on your head. The new arms have the capability of changing tools with a single click and that’s going to make an operator’s life much easier.”

   The new robotic arms will increase the productivity of Perez and other employees at AMWTP.

   “We’re really, really good at what we do at the RWMC-AMWTP,” Perez said. “RWMC-AMWTP has safely and compliantly treated more transuranic waste than any other project in the country. It’s the only facility in DOE’s complex that has this type of equipment, including our supercompactor. Without a doubt, we’re poised to help the rest of the nation safely and compliantly treat its remaining transuranic waste.” 

   AMWTP employees have treated and shipped 57,300 cubic meters of waste out of Idaho.