USC Researchers are Developing AI-Enhanced Safety Inspections for Nuclear Waste

Illustration of a nuclear safety inspector with the text, "We inspect spent nuclear fuel canisters using sensors and AI!"

When PhD student Bozhou Zhuang was asked by his PhD advisor to do research regarding nuclear waste, his first thought was: “Will I survive?”.

The advisor in question was Bora Gencturk, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the director of the USC Structures and Materials Research Laboratory (SMRL). As a specialist in the long-term resilience of material infrastructure he is well aware that – if safety protocols are followed – there is a one-in-a-billion probability that stored radioactive waste would be leaked.

In fact, nuclear energy is one of the cleanest, most secure and efficient energy sources available. A single uranium fuel pellet as small as a fingertip can produce as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of gas fuel, 1,800 pounds of fossil fuel, or 150 gallons of oil – add to that, the benefit of zero carbon emissions. There are currently 440 commercial nuclear power plants in operation, providing 20% of global electricity.

So how did nuclear energy get such a bad rap? Each year, over 10,000 tons of “spent” nuclear fuel are produced worldwide, requiring a long-term storage solution until researchers discover a way to neutralize or recycle the toxic waste. These days, excess spent nuclear fuel is contained within dry storage canisters constructed of stainless steel – an alternate solution to the waste pools within nuclear facilities (if you’re imagining something like a glowing green swimming pool, you’re not far wrong).

However, the current canister solution isn’t yet optimal. At a minimum, these containers need to store the spent fuel for 50-100 years, buying us time as we pursue the secret of how to best manage this effective – yet lethal – resource.

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