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First Eyes Inside Nuclear Plant May Be A Robot's

Many of the sensors and cameras at the nuclear power plant were disabled by explosions, so plant operators are turning to highly maneuverable robots to get a better idea of what's going on in areas where it's far too radioactive for workers to venture. (iRobot)

Workers in Japan want to look inside three troubled reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. But intense radiation inside the buildings means that it is too dangerous for them to enter. One solution? Robots. They're good at going places where people just don't want to go.

"The purpose of robots is to do those dull, dirty and dangerous missions — so dangerous is certainly what we're talking about here," says Tim Trainer, a vice president at iRobot, an American firm that has sent four of its robots to the company that owns the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

After a massive earthquake and tsunami struck the plant on March 11, operators lost power to the buildings that hold the reactors. In the ensuing days, three of them heated up and partially melted down. Explosions and fires that accompanied the accident have knocked out valuable equipment and left the area dangerously radioactive.

"A lot of the sensors and cameras are no longer operative in the facility, so the robot can provide your eyes and ears," Trainer says.

The robots Trainer has sent are designed to investigate bombs for the military, and some have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. They look like little tanks and are about 3 feet long. On their front is an extra set of extendable treads, which they can use to get over things.

I would anticipate that we are going to see a phenomenal enterprise of remote work systems that are brought to bear over the weeks, months and years of recovering Fukushima.
Red Whittaker, professor, Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute

"Both of them are very maneuverable — they both have the ability to climb over rocks and terrain and debris," he says.

That maneuverability could come in handy at Fukushima Dai-ichi — the area around the plant is cluttered with debris. The robots also come equipped with cameras and chemical and radiation sensors. One type has a robotic arm that can open doors — unless they're locked.

"I am not familiar with what the door is like and whether they locked the door," Trainer says. "If they locked the door, likely we will not be able to open them.

Once the robots get inside, they might use their cameras to inspect the condition of the containment vessels around the reactors or take samples to check the radiation levels.

But this is only the start of the role that the robots may play at Fukushima. Carnegie Mellon University robotics researcher Red Whittaker has assisted with robotic operations at nuclear accidents like Chernobyl. He says after that 1986 accident, at a nuclear power plant in Ukraine, radiation levels were too high for workers to conduct cleanup operations, so remote-controlled robots had to take over.

"The building around Chernobyl — that's sometimes called the sarcophagus — was put together by remote cranes that would lift and lower beams and tilt up walls, and by robots in the interior that would cut and dig," Whittaker says.

At Fukushima, Whittaker says, these scouting robots will likely be just the start. Especially given the Japanese aptitude for robotics, he expects a whole variety of different devices — for handling dangerous nuclear fuel, for example, or removing radioactive topsoil around the plant.

"I would anticipate that we are going to see a phenomenal enterprise of remote work systems that are brought to bear over the weeks, months and years of recovering Fukushima," he says.

Trainer says his crews are now working with the nuclear plant's employees, and assuming everything goes according to plan, the robots could enter the site in a matter of days.

Geoff Brumfiel is a reporter for Nature who has been covering the nuclear crisis.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

In Japan, workers hope they will soon get a look inside four troubled reactors at the country's crippled nuclear power plant. So far nobody knows how much damage there's been to the containment systems that normally keep radioactive material from escaping. The intense radiation inside the reactor buildings means it's too dangerous for workers to enter. But a small team of American robots is getting ready to go in. Geoff Brumfiel is a reporter with the scientific journal Nature. And he's been covering the nuclear emergency.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL: Robots are good at going places where people just don't want to go.

TIM TRAINER: The purpose of robots is to do those dull, dirty and dangerous missions - so dangerous is certainly what we're talking about here.

BRUMFIEL: Tim Trainer is a vice president at iRobot, a Massachusetts company that has sent four of its robots to help out at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the plant on March 11th caused extensive damage. Explosions and fires that followed knocked out valuable equipment and left the area dangerously radioactive.

TRAINER: A lot of the sensors and cameras are no longer operative in the facility, so the robot can provide your eyes and ears.

BRUMFIEL: These robots were originally designed to investigate bombs for the military, and some have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are two types, both of which look like little tanks about three feet long. Mounted on the front is an extra set of extendible treads or flippers, which can help them scale obstacles.

TRAINER: Both of them are very maneuverable. They both have the ability to climb stairs. They have the ability to move over rocks and terrain and debris.

BRUMFIEL: That could come in handy at Fukushima Daiichi, where the accident has strewn rubble around the plant. The robots also come equipped with cameras, chemical and radiation sensors. One type has a robotic arm that should be able to open the door of a reactor building - unless it's locked.

TRAINER: I am not familiar with, you know, what the door is like and whether they locked the door. If they locked the door, likely we will not be able to open them.

BRUMFIEL: Once the robots get inside - and by the way, Trainer is pretty sure that they will - they could use their cameras to inspect the condition of the containment vessels around the reactor, or take samples to check for radiation levels.

This will all help officials to determine the extent of the damage. But it's only the start of what robots might do at Fukushima. Red Whittaker is a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, who has assisted with robotic operations at nuclear accidents like Chernobyl. After that accident, radiation levels were too high for workers to conduct cleanup operations, so remote- controlled robots had to take over.

RED WHITTAKER: The building around Chernobyl - so that's sometimes called the sarcophagus - was put together by remoted cranes that would lift and lower beams and tilt up walls, and by robots in the interior that would cut and dig.

BRUMFIEL: At Fukushima, Whittaker says he expects a whole variety of different devices, especially given the Japanese aptitude for robotics. Some might be used to handle dangerous nuclear fuel, for example, while others remove radioactive topsoil around the plant.

WHITTAKER: I would anticipate that we are going to see a phenomenal enterprise of remote work systems that are brought to bear over the weeks, months and years of recovering Fukushima.

BRUMFIEL: The iRobot team is now working with the nuclear plant's employees. If all goes according to plan, the robots could enter the site in a matter of days.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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