Five years after Fukushima disasters, region encourages rise of robotics



Japan is spending more than $1 billion to resurrect the area around the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant as the country’s “Innovation Coast.”

The region is trying to capitalize on technology developed in the five years spent cleaning up the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, including Hitachi Ltd. and Toshiba Corp. robots that slither like snakes or cruise through radioactive water like speed boats to investigate the flooded reactors.

Fukushima Prefecture — like Beirut or post-bankruptcy Detroit — is ripe to develop a strong tech community, according to Samhir Vasdev, an innovation consultant at the World Bank.

“To lead the future from Fukushima, we must overcome our failures,” Fukushima Gov. Masao Uchibori said at the Foreign Press Center in Tokyo last month. “Creating new industries will attract new people, which will be vital to revitalizing the region.”

Public and private investment in “Innovation Coast” projects has topped ¥150 billion ($1.3 billion), according to data compiled by central and regional governments. The nuclear disaster that started in March 2011 and its fallout is estimated to ultimately cost ¥11 trillion.

The government plans to invest nearly ¥200 billion over the year to March 2017 to revamp old industries and promote new ones. Japan is working with Germany and Denmark to collaborate on renewable energy and aims to attract talent with cutting-edge facilities for research in robotics, nuclear safety and radiation medical science.

And in order to foster an interest in robotics among the younger generation, Fukushima is promoting Robot Festa, a trade show of the latest toys next to the machines being used to work inside the ruined reactors.

The need to work at the Fukushima site — an environment still lethal to humans — has proved a catalyst to attract funding and robot development in Japan, said Keiji Nagatani, a professor of robotics at Tohoku University whose robots were among the first to enter the wrecked reactor buildings.

Much more will need to be invested in robots for the cleanup, according to Barry Lennox, a professor at the University of Manchester, who’s part of a group developing a submersible robot that will be able to operate inside the reactor.

“The very latest robots struggle with what might seem basic tasks — walking up to a door, possibly over rubble, opening the door and walking through it,” he said by email. “Research must be completed to design robots that can adapt to their surroundings.”

With the goal of being powered 100 percent by renewables by 2040, Fukushima has moved away from nuclear and carbon-emitting energy. Since the meltdowns, the prefecture has become host to the world’s biggest offshore wind turbine.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced plans for the prefecture to produce hydrogen fuel cells to power 10,000 vehicles a year in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Tokyo-based companies have accounted for most of the more than two dozen robots that have plumbed the depths of Fukushima’s reactor buildings. With work on the nuclear facility expected to drag on after central government reconstruction aid runs out in 2021, the prefecture is trying to spur homegrown robot development.

“We are concerned about what happens after (central government) funding ends in five years, because when it comes to a nuclear power plant disaster, it isn’t solved that quickly,” Uchibori, the prefecture’s governor, told reporters at the Tokyo briefing.

The success of Fukushima’s efforts may ultimately depend on whether people can be enticed to the area. About 7 percent of Fukushima Prefecture remains uninhabitable because of radiation still leaking from Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s stricken Fukushima No. 1 reactors. About 100,000 people have left the prefecture since March 2011 — the biggest decline for any region since the massive earthquake and tsunami.

If Fukushima can attract talent, then it has a good shot at becoming a tech hub, Satoshi Tadokoro, a professor at the International Research Institute of Disaster Sciences in Tohoku University, said by email.

“If not, (it) cannot be, even if heavily funded,” he said.