Robots MIA in Fukushima

Almost a week ago, I asked, "Where are the robots?" to deal with the nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Brian Vastag of the Washington Post has done some reporting, and discovered they are in Europe:

Inside a nondescript warehouse south of Mannheim, Germany, a dozen robots, ranging in size from a low-slung inspection bot no bigger than a toy wagon to a 22-ton Caterpillar excavator, stand ready to respond to a nuclear emergency. With their electronics hardened to withstand radiation, the versatile machines can handle fuel rods as well as monitor doses that would kill a human engineer.

A similar robotic quick-response squad is housed near the Chinon nuclear power plant in France.

But in Japan, where the Fu­kushima Daiichi nuclear crisis drags into its third week, the question is: Where are the robots?

The answer is disquieting, say Japan's top roboticists. Instead of building robots that go where humans never could, this country renowned for its robotics expertise invested in machines that do things that humans can already do - like talk, dance, play the violin and preside over weddings.

"The government believed this accident wouldn't happen," said Hirose Shigeo, a robotics researcher at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. "Most of the robot experts are concentrating on humanoid [robots] and home use."

Why has Japan not requested the use of these purpose-built robots? Or, if the robots cannot be removed for safety reasons, why hasn't Japan quickly fabricated its own versions in response to the crisis?

It is not as if intelligent people in Japan weren't worried about an accident that would require a robot to deal with high radiation:

After a 1999 accident at a nuclear fuel processing facility in Tokai in which two workers died from radiation exposure, the Japanese government and the company operating the facility began developing radiation-resistant robots. But after a year, the trade ministry halted the project, said Shigeo and Tadokoro.

Another Japanese agency, the Nuclear Safety Technology Center, constructed two robots equipped with cameras and hazardous-materials monitors. One, called Monirobo, was dispatched to Fukushima last week, according to Japanese news reports. But representatives of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the Daiichi facility, aren't saying how, or even whether, the robot is being used on-site.

There are robots already in Japan which are not being employed:

Shigeo said a robot developed in his lab, called Helios IX, could fill the reconnaissance niche. The machine can climb stairs, open doors, and monitor temperature and radiation. If its cameras aimed at the spent fuel pools, they could show whether water cannons operated by ground crews were refilling the pools or simply splashing streams onto the floor.

After the crisis began more than two weeks ago, Shigeo upgraded the radio communications on Helios IX so it can be guided from longer distances and through the heavy concrete of the Daiichi plant. So far, though, no one has requested his help - or that of his robot.

Meanwhile, the Japanese and world public are being kept in the dark about possible plutonium leaking from reactor number 3, a worst case scenario.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Once Japan catches its collective breath, there is going to be a reckoning, with the arrogance of utility executives and regulators who failed to plan for the worst case examined closely. The practice of government bureaucrats retiring in their fifties and taking lucrative jobs in the companies they formerly regulated (called amakudari, or "descent from heaven") is certain to come under well-deserved attack.

But that will have to wait for the Fukushima crisis to be solved, and there is no indication of when that will be.

Hat tip: JBW