The ability to monitor critical environment parameters of nuclear plants at all times, particularly during and after a disruptive accident, is vital for the safety of plant personnel, rescue and recovery crews, and the surrounding communities. Conventional hard-wired assets that depend on supplied power may be decimated as a result of such events, as witnessed in the Japanese Fukushima nuclear power plant in March 2011. Self-powered monitoring devices operating on a wireless platform, on the other hand, may survive such calamity and remain functional. The devices would be prepositioned at strategic locations, particularly where the dangerous build-up of contamination and radiation may preclude subsequent manned entrance and surveillance. Equipped with sensors for β-γ radiation, neutrons, hydrogen gas, temperature, humidity, pressure, and water level, as well as with criticality alarms and imaging equipment for heat, video, and other capabilities, these devices can provide vital surveillance information for assessing the extent of plant damage, mandating responses (e.g., evacuation before impending hydrogen explosion), and enabling overall safe and efficient recovery in a disaster.

A radio frequency identification (RFID)-based system — called ARG-US — may be modified and adapted for this task. Developed by Argonne for DOE, ARG-US (meaning “watchful guardian”) has been used successfully to monitor and track sensitive nuclear materials packages at DOE sites. It utilizes sensors in the tags to continuously monitor the state of health of the packaging and promptly disseminates alarms to authorized users when any of the preset sensor thresholds is violated. By adding plant-specific monitoring sensors to the already strong sensor suite and adopting modular hardware, firmware, and software subsystems that are tailored for specific subsystems of a plant, a Remote Area Modular Monitoring (RAMM) system, built on a wireless sensor network (WSN) platform, is being developed by Argonne National Laboratory. ARG-US RAMM, powered by on-board battery, can sustain extended autonomous surveillance operation during and following an incident. The benefits could be invaluable to such critical facilities as nuclear power plants, research and test reactors, fuel cycle manufacturing centers, spent-fuel dry-cask storage facilities, and other nuclear installations.

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