WASHINGTON--One week after the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded in April 1986, Soviet contacts called Carnegie Mellon University robot researcher William ("Red") Whittaker to ask for help in saving thousands of Soviet cleanup workers from radiation exposure. Whittaker's autonomous robots were already cleaning up the disabled Three Mile Island nuclear plant, and his technology was widely acknowledged as the world's best in replacing humans in hazardous environments.

But a year later, after 5,000 Chernobyl workers had absorbed 125,000 rem of radiation, and Soviet robots had proved largely ineffective, Whittaker's technology had still not left the United States. The reason? Approval of the exchange took six months to pass through a labyrinth of U.S. export controls on high technology. By the time permission was finally granted, the Chernobyl cleanup was nearly over. No U.S. technology ever took part in the operation (The Scientist, Jan. 22, 1990, page 2).


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