Myth of nuclear safety sets back robotic research and development


On March 17, six days after the crisis erupted at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, a list was presented to Washington through diplomatic channels seeking U.S. assistance.

Headlining the list was a request for robots — specifically, ones that could remove wreckage and measure radioactivity levels — as well as devices to inject water into the plant’s reactors.

The list was compiled after consultations with Tokyo Electric Power Co., the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency and other ministries and agencies.

“It was like a list asking the United States for a favor. It was the result of their realization that they could not deal with the crisis on their own,” a Foreign Ministry source said.

Since then, countermeasures using foreign technological assistance have been initiated.

The first robot to go into one of the plant’s reactor buildings, where high radiation was measured after the accident, was a U.S. PackBot. Japanese-made robots, said to be the best in the world, were not at the vanguard of such a crucial event.

This has begged the question: Where has the country’s pride as a scientific and technological giant gone?

Masahiro Sakigawara, head of the Future Robotics Technology Center at Chiba Institute of Technology, said, “The PackBot is mass-produced for assignment to war-ravaged areas. There are only a few dozen trial Japanese robot models. Their functions are fundamentally different.”

The recent decision to assign the Quince robot, which the institute’s team helped design, marked the first time a Japanese-made robot was sent to the troubled Fukushima plant. But preparations for the practical use of the robot — which has won several world competitions for running over wreckage — including compiling user manuals and confirming whether it could withstand high radiation levels took time.

“Japan’s research and development feature specializing in and mastering one capability,” said Yoshihiko Nakamura, professor of robotics at the University of Tokyo. “The Japanese are not good at integrating more than two capabilities and raising them to ‘usable standards.’ “

A similar story can be heard regarding the disposal of water contaminated by radioactive materials in the crisis.

The facilities at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, have devices to clean contaminated water through evaporation. The devices are said to be superior to the French Areva SA system employed at the Fukushima plant.

But Hirofumi Nakamura, who leads the agency’s restoration assistance headquarters for the Fukushima plant, said, “Several months are required before the Japanese devices can be introduced at the Fukushima plant. Tepco sought ‘ready-made’ technology to be used immediately.”

A major reason hampering research and development in Japan is the safety myth of nuclear power plants, experts say.

Nakamura said both the state and researchers feel uncomfortable about engaging in research for “military purposes” and “accidents at nuclear plants.”

“While the state emphasizes the safety of nuclear plants to nearby residents, it does not encourage research into potential major accidents,” he said.

A high-ranking ministry official, who declined to be named, said Tepco’s influence in government circles has made it taboo to question its decisions.

“Tokyo Electric Power is too big, and the state is also sensitive to it. Research that Tokyo Electric Power hates can never be promoted.”

Japan has implemented some measures to prepare for accidents at nuclear plants. After a 1999 accident in Tokai, the then-named Ministry of International Trade and Industry earmarked ¥3 billion for robotic research and development. Enterprises that participated in the development projects managed to develop six robots in a year and half.

But a panel, including representatives of power companies, that studied the practical use of the robots, concluded that they could not be used “at the present time” because of, among other reasons, their slow operating speeds. The robots were put aside indefinitely.

“They could have been used fully with some improvements. Development itself alone is not good enough. The key is to maintain and carry on technologies, including training users,” said Takahisa Mano, deputy head of the investigation and research division at the Manufacturing Science and Technology Center, which took part in the development of the robots.

Other experts noted there is no market for robots that could aid in disaster prevention at nuclear plants because utilities have had no intention of buying them from the get-go.