In March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake in the eastern shores of Japan led to aftershocks that damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant. After more than four years of cleanup of radiation in the area surrounding the plant, the Japanese government is ready to dismantle the defunct plant using robots.
On Monday, Toshiba—better known in the United States for its cheap Windows laptops—unveiled a robot to help clean the highly radioactive Reactor 3 building at the plant. Using its crane-like arms, the remote-controlled robot will remove fuel-rod assemblies from the cooling pad in Reactor 3. Workers will control the robot through a myriad of cameras attached to the robot, providing views from various angles.
Fuel-rod assemblies—long, thin metallic tubes made of zirconium that are bundled up together—are important equipment in the step to turn enriched uranium into nuclear fuel, according to the World Nuclear Association. The robot will scheduled to remove 566 fuel-rod assemblies in 2017.
As the builder of the Reactor 3 building, Toshiba is now building a robot that will help dismantle it. Reactor 3 building was damaged by a hydrogen explosion, and its radiation levels make it impossible for manual cleanup with human workers.
In December 2014, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) removed 1,535 fuel-rod assemblies from the pool in the Reactor 4 building, which was not in operation during the 2011 earthquake. The Reactor 4 building did not release any radioactive materials. Compared with Reactor 4’s cleanup, Reactor 3’s will be “more difficult since it will have to be done completely remotely,” a TEPCO official told The Japan Times.
Fukushima was the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986 and the cleanup process is expected to take 30 to 40 years. Japan has been trying new technologies to help the cleanup. The Japan Atomic Energy Agency developed a 3-D virtual reality program of the interior of one of the Fukushima reactor buildings for cleanup crew to have a better insight into the layout of the plant.