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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nuclear Disaster Robot Disaster 2011 + update 2013

Update 2013: The Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc. (MRI) invites the global robotics community to upgrade and to develop a technical catalog about robotic technologies to move and investigate inside nuclear reactor buildings, namely
1) a flight technology to enable access to the top floor of the nuclear reactor building and
2) a technology to move around and conduct investigations under water in a flooded reactor building.
MRI is entrusted from the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy in conducting Machine/Equipment Development for Decommissioning the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Planth.

On December 21, 2011, Government-TEPCO Council on Mid and Long Term Response for Decommissioning adopted "Mid-to-Long-Term Roadmap towards the Decommissioning of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Units 1-4, TEPCO." The roadmap indicates three phase approach towards 40 years decommissioning period.

One week after the 9.0 earthquake and the devastating tsunami that struck off the coast of Honshu Island and severely damaged the cooling systems of three reactor units at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, 250 km north of Tokyo, Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces and the Tokyo Fire Department are still fighting heroically to cool down the damaged reactor units. The disaster has recently been upgraded to an INES 5 serious accident due to significant release of radioactive material likely to require implementation of planned countermeasures. People who live 20 km from the nuclear power station have been evacuated and people who live betwen 20-30 km from Fukushima Dai-ichi site are to stay indoors. The Japanese National Police Agency has officially confirmed 7,508 deaths, 2,583 injured, and 11,680 people missing across seventeen prefectures, as well as over 100,000 buildings damaged or destroyed.

First Sign of Unmanned Operation Needs
While Japan is renowned for its cutting edge robotics technology at Robotland we are surprised and concerned to watch on television human firefighters outside the damaged reactors. Why aren't they using remote controlled robots and unmanned trucks? When asked a science ministry official said a robot used to detect radiation levels is at the Fukushima site, but according to Reuters nuclear safety agency JNES official Hidehiko Nishiyama said: "We have no reports of any robots being used."

Six hours after the earthquake Robotland published a Rescue Robot Alert and started searching for experts and suppliers of search, rescue and firefighting robots. According to IFR Service Robot report 2010 many prototypes of  robots have been designed to locate and fight bombs and fires. However, very few designs have been commercialized for firefighting. IFR lists four suppliers: Rechners GmbH, Austria, InRobTech, Israel, Komatsu, Japan, Hoya Robot, S.Korea.

Robotland found privately owned Croatian company DOK-ING Ltd, developing a remote controlled fire fighting system developed to fight fires in hazardous and inaccessible areas.

On Wednesday March 16,  a Japanese government source confirms that the U.S. military will operate a Global Hawk unmanned high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft over Fukushima plant to take a closer look at its troubled reactors.

On Thursday March 17, German media report about IAEA request to member countries asking for "robots and unmanned vehicles capable of operating in highly radioactive“ as that of Fukushima.

A critical report from Reuters - "Japan a robot power everywhere except at nuclear plant"- is replied by Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Robot Texas A&M Univ., CRASAR, a crisis response and research organization which strives to direct and exploit new technology development in robotics and unmanned systems for humanitarian purposes worldwide, claiming that "pretty much no country has robots (or at least barely plural) for nuclear disasters - denial and spending the necessary R&D money for this very, very hard type of robot is not unique to the Japanese, the US is in similar shape."

Scary Insights from Rescue Robot Experts
CRASAR confess that their small rescue robots to search for survivors aren´t feasible in radiated environments because sensors would probably be the first to go– video and cameras are fairly sensitive to radiation from their CCD chips. It’s impossible to work remotely if video is down.
Credit: Northrop Grumman
According to CRASAR the new Remotec robots from Northrop Grumman are less protected and the IED robots have evolved to be even lighter- so less reliable in a nuclear disaster. Nuclear disaster robots need to be "big, beefy, slow, and stupid (as in few processors)"– and even then it’s just a matter of time before enough radiation fries something important. Other constraints are related to limited battery times, changing operations and communication in various containment structures.

CRASAR refers to Red Whittaker, Director at the Field Robotics Institute at CMU, and expert in using robots for nuclear disasters. He led teams to develop robots for operations at Three Mile Island and at Chernobyl. When asked by Robotland March 17 about the possibility to use robots at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, Whittaker says that remote capabilities are available or adaptable for many tasks that may be relevant at the Dai-ichi plant. One difference in robotic operations between contribution and distraction is to begin with understanding of the need.  "Fires" in nuclear incidents are not approachable and extinguishable in the customary manner. According to Whittaker the challenges may be access, water-supply, or reaching over a spent-fuel pool.  The real challenge might be to flood fuel rods at high elevation....or deliver sustained volume of water.... top-down... and at high reach. If so, then pumped water, delivered by remoted cranes and concrete-delivery systems may be more suitable.

Japanese Nuclear Emergency Robot Blindspot
Asked by Robotland March 17 about why no robots being used for reactor cooling Prof. Satoshi Tadokoro, director the International Rescue Systems Institute, reponds that several types of firefighting robots have been developed by Tokyo FD, Osaka FD, Kanagawa FD, etc. in Japan, but most of them are small type UGV.
A large unmanned spraying robot of Tokyo FD has been used for large-scale fires, such as at Bridgestone fire incident. Prof. Tadokoro says, he doesn't know why no robots are used at Fukushima case, but one reason might be that the reachable distance/height of spraying would not be enough for this plant, in addition to the radiation issue. A robot developed after the JCO incident by METI has been used in exercises at Rokkasho nuclear plant. It is being actually used for monitoring the radiation. Many robots were developed after this incident, but they did not continued. Power plant companies mentioned that they did not need such robots because their nuclear plants never have accidents and are safe.

March 18, the Japanese government is conceding it was unprepared for a disaster of that scale and was slow to respond. The prime minister is vowing to "rebuild Japan from scratch." He says the disasters have brought a "great test for the Japanese people."

First Disaster Monitoring Robot Arrives
Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reports that the first Japanese disaster monitoring robot, Monirobo ("Monitoring Robot"), has arrived at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. Monirobo was developed by  Japan's Nuclear Safety Technology Centre in association with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, METI, after the Tokaimura nuclear accident in 1999 in which two workers died. Monirobo is designed to operate at radiation levels too high for humans. The 1.5-metre and 600 kg heavy robot runs on a pair of caterpillar tracks with a speed of 2.4 km/hr. It has a manipulator arm for removing obstacles and collecting samples. Sensors include a radiation detector, 3D camera system and temperature and humidity sensors. It can be operated remotely from a distance of about one km. The robot carries heavy shielding to protect electronics, especially cameras, of the effects of radiation.
US Ground Robots for Hazmat Mission in Japan
US company iRobot asked for help by the Japanese government, is donating two of its 510 PackBots and two 710 Warrior Robots to Japan, along with two week support by six employees, who will train Japanese military operators. Nothing is said about radiation risks for the robots.

CRASAR says iRobot robots are "great for low-level radiation situations (or for high radiation die-in-place conditions) and much more agile that the traditional tank style monirobo".

Nuclear Emergency Robots in Europe
Credit: KHG Nuclear Emergency Robots
As of January, 2011 there is a total of 195 nuclear power plant units with an installed electric net capacity of 170 GWe in operation in Europe and 19 units with 16,9 GWe were under construction in six countries.

Robotland has reported that Germany and France have established national nuclear emergency teams with special nuclear emergency robots developed. The response status of these organizations and the status in other European countries is not known but needs to be reviewed after the tragic Japanese Nuclear Disaster Robot Disaster 2011.

Citizen Summary: 
  • Many stakeholders have failed to identify the risk not to have access to nuclear emergency robots feasible to operate in radiated environments. 
  • IAEA and national authorities have fail to demand nuclear emergency robots in preparedness and response for a nuclear or radiological emergency.
  • The Japanese Nuclear Power Industry has failed to foresee a need.
  • Few rescue organizations operate robots that are feasible in radiated environments. 
  • The nightmare isn't over. 
  • It's time to rethink and demand viable systems!

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