Robots to handle nuclear leaks

Japan studies European systems to deal with emergencies

The government is considering introducing an emergency-response system led by the private sector in which remote-controlled robots would be used to deal with radiation accidents in the nuclear power industry, government sources said Wednesday.

The government has begun discussions on the planned emergency-response system, after studying similar systems in France and Germany, the sources said.

The Ministry of International Trade and Industry announced in January that it and several Japanese firms will launch a 3 billion yen project to jointly develop by the end of March 2001 remote-controlled robots that can deal with radiation leaks.

But the government has not announced who should be in charge of managing the robots.

The government opted to accelerate efforts to develop the robots after some 80 workers were exposed to radiation in September in the aftermath of the accident at a JCO Co. uranium reprocessing plant in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture. It was Japan’s worst nuclear accident.

Workers risked radiation exposure when they drained water from the accident site to halt a nuclear chain reaction and during operations to minimize the radiation released from the plant.

The government studied between January and March how the United States and some European countries deal with emergency situations at nuclear facilities, the government sources said.

In France, Groupe INTRA, financed half by the government and half by electric utilities, possesses a number of robots resistant to radiation as well as vehicles for use in operations to deal with nuclear accidents.

INTRA officials say workers can combat leaks at a distance of 10 km from an accident site by using vehicles equipped with antennas and robots. The French body has an annual budget of 800 million yen.

In Germany, KHG, funded jointly by 43 electric power companies, provides the emergency-response system. In one incident in which a radioactive material was lost in a hospital, it sent in a robot to search for it. The body has an annual budget worth 700 million yen.

“We can learn a lot from France and Germany, where emergency-response systems function well by minimizing involvement by the government,” a government official said.

In Japan, Toshiba Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., along with Cybernetix, a French robot maker, will be in charge of developing several types of remote-controlled, radiation-resistant robots, according to industry sources.

The government is asking the makers to develop robots that can withstand 10 sieverts of gamma rays per hour, the sources said.

Cybernetix, which makes robots for INTRA and KHG, can make robots capable of withstanding radiation exposure of about 1,000 times the requested level, the sources said.

It is also hoped that through the joint robot-development project, the Japanese companies will learn advanced robot technology as well as knowhow on using robots from Cybernetix, an industry source said.