PITTSBURGH--The Soviet official responsible for the decontamination of the stricken Chernobyl nuclear power plant has acknowledged for the first time that his country was forced to abandon mechanical solutions and resort to human labor to complete the cleanup. Innovative robotics equipment from the United States that could have reduced the human toll was not used, he noted, because of bureaucratic ineptness and the lack of any cooperative agreement between the two countries.

In short and measured sentences, Yuri Semiolenko told a recent conference of robotics scientists gathered at Carnegie Mellon University how Soviet hazardous waste experts spent an estimated $2 billion on the cleanup and threw everything from converted moon rovers to radio-controlled bulldozers at the demolished reactor. But innovation after innovation succumbed to radiation, moisture, and debris. Faced with a ruin that was still emitting 1,000 rads of radiation an hour, the Soviets resorted to manpower.

"The challenge was...

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