Fukushima Clean Up Proves Robots and Humans Share a Weakness: Nuclear Radiation

They were supposed to save the day.

The Japan Times

Even a robot specially designed to maneuver into the core of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan that melted down back in 2011 wasn’t able to withstand the radiation. The robot swam under water and finagled around obstacles, but as soon as it reached the core, the radiation tore through its wiring, leaving it inoperable.

Toshiba rolled out the huge robot that was going to bring the decommissioning process back on track after a long series of delays in January. Fitted with two large arms, the robot was designed to break into the nuclear core and use its arms to cut each of the 566 nuclear fuel rods into pieces. However, like for its robo-predecessors, the radiation proved too much to handle. It is at least the third robot employed to aid in the cleanup that has broken down in the reactor.

Robots have long played a key role in the development and use of nuclear energy, so it’s somewhat surprising that radiation has made such short work of the bots. Robots assist at nuclear power plants, dismantle nuclear weapons, and even play a role in radiation testing. So the failure of the Japanese authorities to realize they were sending in doomed robots may simply demonstrate just how dangerous the melted core of a nuclear reactor can be. Since the fuel rods melted through the core, nobody even knows exactly where they are, let alone exactly how much radiation they are spewing.

With efforts to address the continued leakage of radiation stalled, attention returns to the other high-tech attempt to contain the fallout. Japan is building the world’s largest ice wall around the reactors to contain radiation from spilling out into the ocean. The process of building the wall’s outer-shell finished in February, and the authorities are planning to begin pumping water later this year.

Last May, the UN nuclear watchdog criticized the cleanup of the nuclear fallout, and now with both humans and robots incapable of getting anywhere near the core itself, the ice wall is the best hope for containment. As for a real end to the leakage, we’re going to need a new idea.

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