Robots and the Japan nuclear crisis: Don't start a reactor you can't shut down.

Science, technology, and life.
March 22 2011 4:29 AM

The Robot Rule

Don't start a nuclear reactor unless you have robots to stop it from melting down.

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Robots exist that can do these things. Some are well-hardened against radiation. Some spray water at high pressure. Some have complex manipulators similar to a human arm. But when the quake hit, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the Fukushima plant, had no such robots.

Since then, Japan has scrambled to find robots abroad. Military officers checked out models at a Singapore trade show. The International Atomic Energy Agency emailed other governments asking what kind of unmanned vehicles they could supply. The first robot didn't show up at Fukushima until Friday, seven days into the crisis, and it could only monitor the mess, not do anything to fix it. French  and American companies  have rushed robots to Japan, but according to a television station that spoke with the U.S. supplier, the company "says it is impossible to know how radiation will affect the robots."

This is crazy. We can't have the first robots arriving unfit and unprepared three days after a nuclear facility was nearly abandoned to meltdown because of radiation. Robots have to be available within hours, hardened to radiation, and equipped to help.

France has such a system. Two years after Chernobyl, French nuclear operators created Group Intra, a consortium charged with maintaining a fleet of robots for use in major nuclear accidents. The group is on call around the clock and pledges to deliver equipment and operators anywhere in France within 24 hours. Its robots have hydraulic manipulator arms and can go 10 hours without external power. Some can be remotely controlled from a distance of 10 kilometers.

Japan has no comparable system. Neither does the U.S. The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the industry, touts robots for routine jobs such as inspection but is mum about robots for emergencies. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires "emergency facilities and equipment" but says nothing about robots, unmanned systems, or remotely operated devices.

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This silence must end. No nuclear power plant should be allowed to operate without ready access to unmanned systems that can fight a meltdown.

Last year, after BP opened an oil gusher on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico and couldn't stop it, the Obama administration ordered deep-water drillers to "have in place a secondary control system with remote operated vehicle (ROV) intervention capabilities for the blowout preventer." Operators were instructed to "test the mechanism for the ROV capabilities while the blowout preventer is onboard the rig prior to placement subsea." The logic behind this rule was simple: Don't open any holes you can't close. Humans can't endure high water pressure. If something goes wrong a mile under the sea, you won't be able to reach it. Get robots that can reach it for you and plug the hole, or don't drill the well.

Nuclear power should be treated the same way. Humans can't endure high levels of radioactivity. If a reactor spews radiation, you won't be able to reach it. Get robots that can reach it for you and stop the meltdown, or don't start the reactor.

Human Nature thanks Forrest Wickman for research assistance.