Technology of Anti-Disaster Robotics (7)

Issues of Maintenance and Renewal of Anti-Disaster Robots

Hajime Asama, Professor,  and Yshihiko Nakamura, Professor,
The University of Tokyo

The following is a list of R&D projects related to robots for use at nuclear power plants that were funded by the Japanese government in the past. The names of the government agencies that funded each project are in parenthesis.

  • Robots for Hazardous Environments (MITI = currently METI)
  • Inspection Robot for Nuclear Power Plants (MITI)
  • Nuclear Power Fundamental Technology Development (Former Science and Technology Agency)
  • Development of Nuclear Disaster Prevention Robot in response to the Tokaimura nuclear accident in 1999 (MITI, STA, Japan Atomic Energy Research Institute, Nuclear Safety Technology Center, Nuclear power plant manufacturers)
  • Besides these projects, nuclear power plant manufacturers have developed various robots for plant maintenance.

The three main reasons none of these robots were able to be put into use immediately following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant are as follows.

  1. The robots are designed specifically to be used for plant maintenance and do not have general capabilities that would be of use in this kind of disaster.
  2. While there are some elemental technologies that may be effective, they are not systematized to immediately be put  in actual use.
  3. The robots developed that were meant for actual use have been discarded due to lack of maintenance and operational funding.

Other rescue robots have also been developed in Japan using government funding but due to the same reason – lack of maintenance and operational funding – there has not been adequate effort to  keep these robots on standby. Since a market for disaster robots rely on the spending of the government, municipalities and electric power companies, if these entities decide not to invest in robots, there will be no market.

The Japanese government’s nuclear power policy was based on the notion that nuclear power plants were absolutely safe. Thus, there was no serious effort made to implement these robots that were meant for nuclear emergencies. Despite the fact that the government provided the initial funding to develop the critical technologies, additional funding to maintain them were non-existent.

Considering the enormous damage that a nuclear disaster can trigger, there should be a framework in which robotic systems will be maintained and improved along with the providing of regular training for operators to use them. The government, municipalities and electric power companies must evaluate the safeness and risks from a scientific and engineering perspective and disclose the information to the general public. The need to invest in this kind of long-term activity must be communicated to the tax payers. The goal to prevent a nuclear accident is not equal to a misconception that a nuclear accident will never happen. This problem must be addressed by the administration and management and validated from a social science perspective.  Scientists and engineers must have realized this discrepancy and it is necessary for them also to verify why this logic could have not been fixed before a major tragic event.


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