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Robotics industry learns from successes and failures at Fukushima

Sharon Gaudin | March 16, 2017
Robots crawl into, sometimes get lost, in rubble of highly radioactive disaster site

robots cleaning up mess
Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Without robots, there would be no safe way to clean up the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The problem is that recently, some of the robots being used in the most dangerous and critical part of the cleanup of the 2011 nuclear plant disaster failed. The robots succumbed to massive amounts of radiation or got stuck in rubble.  

On March 11, 2011, hydrogen explosions ripped through the plant when a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. The power plant suffered catastrophic meltdowns in three of its six nuclear reactors.

Six years later, the environment inside the facilities remains too dangerous for people, and even for some robots.

The cleanup and decommissioning of the Fukushima power plant, which is expected to take 30 to 40 years and cost tens of billions of dollars, depends on robots of various sizes and shapes. There are robots that are snake-like, others shaped more like a scorpion, some that are tiny and others that weigh 500 pounds. Machines from around the world have been sent to aid in the cleanup.

"I don't think they can do it without robots," said Taskin Padir, an associate professor at Northeastern University's Robotics and Intelligent Vehicles Research Laboratory. "We'll never be able to send humans into the reactor. The levels of radiation are unheard of. Contamination and radiation are huge. There's no way people are going in."

During the disaster, nuclear fuel rods were displaced, broken and melted. Removal of this radioactive debris is the most critical part of the cleanup and decommissioning operation.

Some of these robots are doing significant work. They’re taking measurements, assessing damage and recording images and video, among other jobs.

An image captured by a robot inside the reactor 1 pressure vessel at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. 
Tokyo Electric Power Co. An image captured by a robot inside the reactor 1 pressure vessel at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Robots have assisted in other cleanup efforts after nuclear accidents. They were used after the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania, and the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

The entire cleanup of the station's basement at Three Mile Island, which had hundreds of thousands of gallons of contaminated water and debris, was handled robotically.

There have been decades of advances in robotics since the machines were called on to clean up after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Scientists have developed autonomous humanoid robots, for example, but those aren’t the machines being used at Fukushima.


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