Hitachi-GE testing variety of simply structured, radiation-resistant equipment
The Unit 1 reactor building at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) in Okuma town, Fukushima prefecture, June 21, 2017.
TOKYO — A joint venture between Japanese and American high-technology power houses Hitachi and General Electric is developing special robots for removing nuclear debris from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the most difficult task in decommissioning the plant’s six reactors, three of which suffered core meltdowns in the March 2011 accident.
The machines under development by Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy are called “muscle robots,” as their hydraulic springs operate like human muscles. The company, based in Hitachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, is stepping up efforts to complete the development project in time for the start of debris removal in 2021.
Hitachi-GE is testing the arms of the robots at a plant of Chugai Technos, a Hiroshima-based engineering service company, located a 30-minute drive from the center of the city. The testing is taking place in a structure with a life-size model of the primary containment vessel of the No. 1 reactor at the Fukushima plant. The robots awkwardly move about, picking up concrete lumps standing in for fuel debris.
“The robots are based on a concept completely different from those of conventional robots,” said Koichi Kurosawa, a senior Hitachi-GE engineer heading the development project. Hydraulics are being used because electronics cannot survive in the extreme environment inside the reactors.
“Asked if the robots are applicable to other nuclear power plants, I would say the possibility is low,” Kurosawa said, noting that the robots are designed to work amid intense radiation.
While Hitachi-GE has built many nuclear reactors, it is encountering a variety of new challenges in developing the muscle robots simply because of the tough work required to retrieve fuel debris.
In the nuclear accident caused by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, cooling the fuel rods became impossible, and melted uranium fuel dropped from them. Some of the fuel broke through nuclear reactor pressure vessels and solidified as fuel debris containing uranium and plutonium.
The debris is estimated to weigh more than 800 tons in total. The insides of the PCVs at the Fukushima plant are directly exposed to the debris and are emitting radioactivity strong enough to kill a human within a few minutes.
The International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, a Tokyo-based research institute for decommissioning nuclear plants, and three reactor makers — Hitachi-GE, Toshiba and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries — have been attempting to ascertain conditions inside the reactor buildings at the Fukushima plant by means of camera- and dosimeter-equipped equipment.
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