Nuclear Waste Site Inspection Done By Drones
South Carolina switches to deploying drones for nuclear waste site inspection at Savannah River Site (SRS). Contractor, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, has relieved employees from manually inspecting cleanup sites by turning to camera-mounted drones to conduct inspections of nuclear waste sites at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
This shift was influenced primarily by COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic. According to the leader of the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS) project, Juana Maddox, “. . . nearly every one of our regulators has been working from home and no one wants the increased risk of driving to the site.”*
By finding a safer way to demonstrate the need for remediated nuclear waste sites during the COVID-19 pandemic, a contractor in South Carolina is looking to drone-based aerial inspections to be the key solution.
The Savannah River Site (SRS) – a 310-square-mile area located near Aiken, South Carolina, on the Savannah River – produced about 36 metric tons of plutonium for the U.S. government’s nuclear missions from 1953 to 1988. Today, sites owned by The U.S. Department of Energy and is home to numerous animals, such as white-tailed deer, turkeys, eagles, alligators, multiple snake species, amphibians, songbirds, as well as the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
The site’s management and operations are entrusted with SRNS – a company that has been sending ground teams to go through the cleanup sites by foot and inspect the structural condition of the protective covers at waste facilities. And since there are more than 100 acres of combined waste land, inspecting the cleanup sites manually has always been a challenge. The covers themselves, which consist of geosynthetic material and soil that is topped with grass sod, need to be closely protected from hogs rooting up the soil.
Furthermore, COVID-19 descended upon millions of people throughout the world. Maddox, explains:
“Nearly every one of our regulators has been working from home and no one wants the increased risk of driving to the site and gathering to use traditional site inspection methods.”*
The camera-mounted drones that SRNS has decided to leverage, typically maintain a height of 10 to 12 feet above ground during the aerial inspections, while at the same time, occasionally soaring up to 150 feet for a broader perspective.
Inspections range from 30 minutes to five hours, depending on the size of each protective cover.
To the question of, “Why conduct drone inspections at nuclear waste sites?” Troy Lorier, a drone operations manager and aviation safety officer with Savannah River National Laboratory, explains:
“We can quickly and efficiently ensure all aspects of the remediated waste site are in good condition in a fraction of the time required to walk the site. Plus, issues such as damaged fencing, erosion, or where hogs have rooted up the soil, can be quickly identified and the exact location passed on to maintenance crews.”*
Maddox is convinced that using drones can have a very powerful impact on meeting the needs of federal and state regulators who annually conduct site inspections, Maddox puts it this way:
“For a recent aerial inspection, 10 engineered protective covers at waste facilities within SRS were inspected. We’re meeting virtually and viewing aerial footage and photos. We have high expectations that this will work out extremely well for everyone.”*
Whereas SRS has been running and maintaining a nuclear drone program since 2009, it is more common that contractors use drones for emergency response surveillance, radiation detection, aerial photography and videography, even counter-drone testing and training purposes. In fact, in 2020, SRS won the Department of Energy’s coveted UAS Aircraft Unit Award.
South Carolina’s decision to switch to deploying drones for nuclear waste site inspection at Savannah River Site (SRS), employees have been relieved from manually inspecting cleanup sites by turning to camera-mounted drones to conduct inspections of nuclear waste sites.
This shift was influenced primarily by COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic. According to the leader of the Savannah River Nuclear Solutions (SRNS) project, Maddox, almost every one of their regulators worked from home because they did not want to risk driving to the inspection site.
Thankfully, a contractor found drone-based aerial inspections to be the key solution in finding a safer way to demonstrate the need for remediated nuclear waste sites during the COVID-19 pandemic.