Debris prevents robots from entering stricken nuclear plant

A Japanese robot is waiting to enter the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and another is on the way from the US

Tokyo Electric Power is looking to send radiation-hardened robots into the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, but obstacles literally stand in the way of their use.

The company has already been provided a nuclear safety robot by Japan's Nuclear Safety Technology Center and the U.S. Dept. of Energy said this week that it would send at least one robot to Japan, but the large amount of debris and cables littering the Fukushima plant poses problems for their use.

The Japanese robot, called "Moni Robo A," remains at the operations staging area because of the state of the plant, said Hiro Hasegawa, a spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO). A tsunami washed a large amount of debris across the plant and more was spread when hydrogen explosions blew the tops off two reactors buildings.

"If the problem is cleared in the future, we will try to use it," he said.

Moni Robo A runs on caterpillar tracks and is 1.5 meters tall. It has radiation and gas sensors, front and rear cameras, a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit, and a 3D camera at the top. There's also a hinged manipulator arm that can reach out around the robot.

It can be remotely operated from a portable control room that was designed to fit inside a C-130 cargo aircraft for rapid deployment. The control center can remain in a safe area and communicate with the robot via radio. Repeater stations can extend the range of the radio link if required.

Robots are also on their way from the U.S., according to testimony provided to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Washington, D.C., this week.

"The Department [of Energy] has provided information to the Government of Japan on radiation-hardened robotic capabilities available within [the U.S.], a shipment is being readied," said Peter Lyons, acting assistant energy secretary for nuclear energy.

"We are moving expeditiously to ship not only the robots, but also operators who perhaps will be used to train Japanese operators," he said.

The U.S. is already flying a drone over the Fukushima Daiichi plant to collect data and provide video of the plant. The Global Hawk aircraft, developed by Northrop Grumman, is known for its use above Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is being employed above Fukushima for the same reasons it's used elsewhere: because it's autonomous there is no risk to a pilot.

Some have expressed surprise that robots were not put into use at the plant earlier. Numerous robots have been developed in the country, but most are focused on industrial use in factories or as home-help devices for the elderly.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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