Japanese company sending in swimming robot to probe damage at Fukushima plant

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Newly developed robot mockup for underwater investigation for a Fukushima’s damaged reactor, is displayed at a Toshiba Corp. test facility in Yokosuka near Tokyo on Thursday, June 15, 2017. (AP / Shuji Kajiyama)

YOKOSUKA, Japan – A Japanese industrial group has unveiled a swimming robot designed be used underwater to probe damage from meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Remote controlled robots are key to the decades-long decommissioning process, but super-high radiation and structural damage hampered earlier attempts to probe damage to the reactors from meltdowns following a massive earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.

The developers said Thursday they plan to send the probe into the primary containment vessel of Unit 3 at Fukushima this summer to study the extent of damage and locate parts of melted fuel that is thought to have fallen to the bottom of the chamber and been submerged by highly radioactive water.

The robot, about the size of a loaf of bread and mounted with lights, manoeuvrs with tail propellers and collects data using two cameras and a dosimeter.

Japan hopes to locate and start removing the fuel after Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics.

The biggest challenge is removing hundreds of tons of melted nuclear fuel and debris from the plant’s three wrecked reactors.

Earlier, snake and scorpion-shaped robots became stuck inside two reactors. The scorpion robot’s crawling function failed and it was left inside the plant’s Unit 2 containment vessel. The other, designed for cleaning debris for the “scorpion” probe, was called back after two hours when two of its cameras stopped working after its total radiation exposure reached 1,000 Sievert – a level that would kill a human within seconds. The plan had been to use the robot for 10 hours at an exposure level of 100 Sievert per hour.

The swimming robot shown to reporters at a Toshiba Corp. test facility near Tokyo was co-developed by the debt-strapped Japanese nuclear and electronics company and the government’s International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning.

Scientists need to know the melted nuclear fuel’s exact location and understand structural damage in each of the three wrecked reactors to work out the optimum, safest way to remove the fuel.

“The fuel debris will be a challenge,” said Dale Klein, a former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chief, who now serves as an outside adviser to the Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant’s operator. He said it could take six months to a year to obtain necessary data and decide on how to remove the fuel.

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