Six years on, Fukushima rests its hopes on fearless robots
As the struggle continues to bring the six-year-old triple nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi under control, robots are providing a first, albeit expendable, line of assault.
The robots are on a high-tech suicide mission into the nooks and crannies beneath the stricken plant’s three melted-down reactor cores to discover and map an estimated yet elusive 600 tons of molten nuclear fuel.
Radiation levels in these corridors can reach up to 650 sieverts and hour, higher by nine times than the previous highs measured at the plant, which plateaued at a mere 73 sieverts in 2012.
A whole human body dose of 10 sieverts is enough to cause immediate illness and death within a few weeks at most, 650 within a minute.
Levels like those recently found in the snarls and wreckage beneath Fukushima’s reactor No 2, where radiation is more concentrated because, unlike reactor No 1 and 3, it didn’t suffer a hydrogen explosion, are lethal not just to humans but, as it turns out, to robots as well.
The most recent robot that Tokyo Electric Power Co., the owner of the Fukushima plant, sent into the breach of reactor No 2 died in less than a day. The two before that got stuck in narrow passages and were given up for dead, and a third was abandoned after it spent six days searching for the reactor’s melted fuel. Yet one more robot was sacrificed in action while trying to locate one of its lost compatriots.
Scientists are trying to develop robots better suited to the high radiation intensity. Yet they say the metallic body count is producing results by giving technicians a view of where the melted down fuel is located and helping them produce 3-D models of what it looks like.
The hope is that robots will be doing the heavy lifting when it comes time to dig out the fuel on a decommissioning job now expected to last another 30 to 40 years at a new cost of $189 billion – nearly double estimates released three years ago.
But on behalf of the 6,000 human workers at the site: Better the robots than them.
Six years ago, on March 11, 2011 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake 72 kilometers out to sea slammed a 39-meter tsunami into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing a triple meltdown. In the days that followed, uranium fuel melted down in three of the six reactors. Explosions in three of the reactor buildings belched radioactive iodine, cesium and other fission by-products into the environment.
In the immediate aftermath, Japan shut down its 42 remaining nuclear reactors. Up to 160,000 people who lived within a 20-kilometer radius of the plant were forced to evacuate homes where they had lived for generations with their families in agricultural Fukushima.
Six years later, the lemming-like march of robots into the still chaotic cleanup of the plant has become a hopeful metaphor for technology accomplishing what is beyond humanity’s grasp, and their deaths are getting a lot of attention.
Tepco is still hewing to its vow of securing the plant by 2050 to 2060, and says that for the first time since the accident it has succeeded in reeling in the threat the wrecked plant poses to the surrounding area. A visual example of that, noted by reporters who took their annual tour of the plant, is that the thousands of workers on site can now work in ordinary work clothes and surgical masks rather than protective gear. And there are fewer workers to count. Where 8,000 were working at the site last year, 2000 fewer are needed now.
Damaged reactor buildings have been reinforced and 1,300 precariously perched spent fuel assemblies at reactor No. 4 that were a potential disaster all their own have been safely removed. The ground has also been covered with a special coating to prevent rainwater from added to Tepco’s water management struggles.
The company’s projection that it will finish the cleanup in the next four decades, however, is viewed skeptically by Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority, which recently told the Guardian newspaper that the effort was still groping in the dark. And many are suspicious that the Tepco’s optimism is just public relations to assure the international community ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Can you go home again?
Another looming nightmare for many thousands of people is the prospect of loosing government financial support if they don’t move back to villages and towns they evacuated, which many environmental groups say are still highly contaminated.
The evacuation orders enacted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government after the disaster will be stripped later this month, forcing the evacuees back to live in areas that where in the direct path of the disaster.
Abe’s government says it’s safe for people to return to areas where radiation is 20 millisieverts per year or lower. The globally-accepted limit for radiation absorption is 1 millisievert per year, though the IAEA says anything up to 20 millisieverts per year poses no immediate danger to humans. That has been disputed by numerous studies.
At the plant, contaminated water still poses one of the biggest threats to the wider environment. Nearly one million tons of it stored across 1,000 tanks that were collected after the reactors were blasted with seawater to cool them down. More water has poured in as technicians continue to circulate it through the destroyed reactors to keep them cool.
Leaks from these tanks have often contaminated groundwater, and Tepco has struggled to divert the radioactive deluge from spilling into the Pacific Ocean with an underground wall of frozen soil.
The wall looks a bit like the piping behind a refrigerator and sinks 30 meters into the ground. Over the last year, Tepco pumped water into it to begin the freezing process. But some reports say the wall is having less success in another of its tasks – holding back groundwater from leaking into the basements of reactor buildings, which creates yet more contaminated water.
At their six-year anniversary briefing to reporters, Tepco admitted it was conflicted over what to do with the sea it has amassed. The company says it will be able to cleanse much of the water of cesium, strontium and 50 other radionuclides. But they’re still stumped by how to get rid of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, which is still in that water.
Tepco is studying two options. One is to simply dilute the water further and dump it into the sea, as tritium naturally occurs in water in microscopic quantities. They’re also considering evaporating all 960,000 tons of it to release the tritium into the atmosphere.
The company says the final decision will be subject to a public hearing process. Should dumping water into the sea – as has happened numerous times before – still be among the considerations, it would doubtless meet the fierce opposition of fishermen, who have struggled with contaminated seawater since the accident.
Robots’ maze hunt
But by far the most technically involved struggle is finding and removing the fuel that melted down in reactor Nos 1, 2 and 3. And for that, enter the robots, each of which has to be shaped to its task.
At reactor No. 2, where the robot crews have been doing most of their work, it’s not yet known if the fuel melted into or through the reactor vessel’s concrete floor. Determining where that fuel is, and how radioactive it is, dictates how the robots will be designed.
And that’s just for this reactor. At reactor Nos 1 and 3, robots will have to be further customized to handle the specifics of each location. With explorations underway at reactor No 2, Tepco says it expects more robots to march into the other reactors by this summer.
At that point, they say, they will set policy on how the melted fuel will be removed, a process that isn’t expect to begin until 2021.
Designing and building what Tepco refers to as “single function robots” takes as long as two years, and that’s only when you know what you are making the robots for.
One of the robots currently on the drawing board, for instance, would be able to leap over debris. Another that Hitachi is reportedly designing will resemble a snake so it can lower cameras through a grating in reactor No 1 to scope out and photograph melted down fuel there. That will be third Hitachi robot of that design.
Another robot designed by Toshiba, which was widely eulogized throughout the media, was designed to the anatomy of a scorpion. It died at the end of February just shy of a grating through which it might have got a peek of melted down fuel in reactor No 2.
Newer robot designs, according to a Tepco spokesman who talked with Bloomberg, are incorporating fewer wires and circuits and are built with harder parts than their earlier cousins.
But even the robots that peter out in the radiation are providing valuable clues: Toshiba’s scorpion robot sent the first grainy images from within reactor No 2 of a black residue that could actually be the spent fuel it was sent in to find.
Whether the fuel is in discrete piles or has melted to the walls of its containment vessels will present yet new challenges. Tepco and other scientists expect it’s a bit of both. Fuel that oozed and then re-melted inside the core or adhered to other reactor structures will have to be cut out, shoveled up and placed in shielded containers before it can be removed. This will be the robots’ job.
Earning the trust of a suspicious public
Six years of work is doing little to dent public suspicion of nuclear power in a country that previously relied on its 54 reactors to supply 30 percent of its power.
Tepco – which last year was shown to have delayed reporting the initial meltdowns after the catastrophe by 88 days, thus jeopardizing tens of thousands of lives – has a long way to got before it regains trust. Numerous other independent scientists are said by Japanese activists to be massaging data to make the situation look better than it is.
The mistrust is visible both in how slowly Japan is allowing its nuclear reactors go back online, and by the trickle of people who are willing to return to homes in the Fukushima Prefecture from which they were evacuated.
Japan’s reactors, all of which were shut down in the wake of the disaster, must pass the world’s most stringent stress tests before utilities can consider switching them back on. But even after they’re cleared technically, the people living near the plants have to want them back – and not many do.
As of this year, only three nuclear reactors have been switched on since 2011. Two others at the Genkai nuclear power plant on Japan’s Kyushu Island, were green lighted by a local mayor, but now must be approved by seven other surrounding municipalities.
Among the more than 160,000 people reckoning with the dilemma of moving back to areas affected by radiation, 60 percent report feeling physical, psychological, financial and emotional stress as a result of the disaster, Japan’s NHK television reported. Up to 72,500 of these people still live in government supplied temporary housing.
In Naime, only 4 kilometers northwest of the plant, more than half of the resident have elected not to return, according to government surveys. Levels there recently hover around 0.07 microsieverts per hour, but down the road in Tomioka, they spike to 1.48 microsieverts an hour, more than 30 times levels in downtown Tokyo, showing there are still lingering radiation hotspots.
One group that is not afraid of populating the ghost-towns surrounding the plant are, according to reports, wild boar. The animals, which have grown up without humans around have reportedly grown fearless.
Tamotsu Baba, the mayor of Naime who is pushing for resettlement by the end of the month, told Reuters the boars pose make the town even less hospitable than the threat of radiation.
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