As decommissioning work at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)’s Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant continues, remote control robots are expected to play an important role in the decommissioning process. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the development of these robots faces huge challenges, such as high levels of radiation within the nuclear reactors, as well as a lack of information.
Among the robots that have been designed to carry out decommissioning work is the “muscle robot.” Developed by Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy, Ltd., the body and limbs of the muscle robot can be controlled with a device that one might typically find attached to a video game console. Another type of robot acts like a crab with claws that can be used to grasp metallic pipes and snap them using a blade positioned on one of its claws. These robots are also able to smash concrete, using a special drill that can be placed at the end of the arm — like something out of a Hollywood movie.
Looking ahead, the government and TEPCO are aiming to start removing the melted nuclear fuel inside the No. 1 to No. 3 reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in 2021, after announcing exactly how they plan to do so over the summer. Although knowledge regarding the matter is limited, it seems that the melted nuclear fuel in the reactors has cooled and solidified, and the prototypes of the robots have been produced based on the assumption that the devices need to break down and remove such hardened fuel.
The robots’ parts are connected together with springs, and are driven using hydraulic power. One of the main advantages of this system is that they are hardly affected by radiation. There are six types of robot in total, such as the “spider-style” robot which has six arms and legs (length 2.8 meters, width 2 meters, weight 50 kilograms), as well as a “tank-style” robot (length 4.35 meters, width 63 centimeters, weight 700 kilograms), which runs on a conveyor belt. The tank-style robot is capable of lifting objects weighing up to 50 kilograms. A representative from Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy states determinedly, “I want the muscle robots to remove the melted nuclear fuel.”
However, the process will not be plain sailing. While the bodies of these robots are resistant to radiation, their cameras are somewhat vulnerable. It has been found that the electronic hardware in the cameras breaks easily after being exposed to radiation. For example, when a “cleaning robot” was sent into the No. 2 reactor on Feb. 9, 2017, the camera broke after about two hours after being exposed up to an estimated 650 sieverts per hour of radiation. The camera part of the robot is essential because without it, images cannot be transmitted back to the control room.
To solve this problem, ideas such as placing a metallic plate near the camera that would block out radiation have been discussed, but it is feared that this would make the robot heavier and interfere with its operations. As a Hitachi representative states, “If one were to use an analogy to describe the current development stage in human terms, then we have entered elementary school. We’d like to continue our work, believing we can develop usable robots.” It is clear that a trial-and-error process is very much underway, as the robot developers try their best to achieve perfection.
It will not be an easy road though. Hajime Asama, professor at the University of Tokyo and a member of the Technology Advisory Committee of the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning (IRID), states, “Robots are usually developed based on confirmation of what exactly lies in the reactors. However, in the case of the No. 1 power plant, no matter how hard you try to predict what is in there, there are often unexpected elements waiting.”
In the No. 2 reactor, a “scorpion-style robot” was sent in on Feb. 16, as a follow-up to the cleaning robot but it got trapped by deposits on the conveyor belt, and came to a halt. The presence of these kinds of deposits was unexpected at the stage when the robot was being designed. Too much is still unknown about the situation inside the reactors, making robot design difficult. Later this month, a “wakasagi ice fishing-type robot” is expected to be placed inside the No. 1 reactor, but it is feared that the same problems that were experienced in the No. 2 reactor will emerge once again.
In recent years, the use of artificial intelligence has been expected to play a key role but a number of unexpected problems have made progress in this area difficult. What is needed is technology that can be controlled remotely by people with flexible judgment. However, professor Asama believes that, “The reactors inside the No. 1 plant are full of unknown challenges. We have no choice but to use our available knowledge to create robots that can deal with these problems.”