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Southern Research, through the ARPAe program, has been installing robotic systems in some of our labs. They are currently being used for our research into autonomous maintenance of nuclear energy systems. The research with these robots is being done to support a more sustainable and affordable future for nuclear reactors and nuclear power.

The future of nuclear energy can be found in molten salt reactors (MSRs), as they tend to be safer and more efficient than the larger reactors. They operate largely in the same way as the large reactors, but they operate at high temperatures with a liquid nuclear fuel that allows for the reactor to self-regulate if it ever reaches a critical state. This self-regulation raises a problem however, what happens when the reactors need to be maintained? This is where Southern Research steps in with robotics to run autonomous maintenance.

We will be training robots, but there are currently no MSRs built and so the barrier comes with them not being able to train in the real world. With our program partners, Southern Research have built virtual worlds, where we’ll be able to run simulations and train them to accomplish various maintenance tasks so that they can be operated in the real world when MSRs are built. The training will start out generalized with our robot, FANUC, and we have partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who also has a robot. With this generalized training, it is our hope that we can expand the machine learning training to other tasks that robotics could be used for like exploration in more extreme environments.