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March 18, 2011

Why Aren't Robots - Instead of Humans - Being Used at Japanese Nuclear Plant?

There is global concern for the workers in Japan’s crippled nuclear power plant as they risk their health – and possibly lives – trying to find a solution to the radiation emanating from the reactors.

But in hindsight a question arises – why are human beings being used in the plant given the potential for illness? A skeleton crew has been exposed to the dangerous environment for a week as they struggle to find ways to avoid a further catastrophe.

Japan, after all, is a leader in the field of robotics.

Reuters reports that the use of robots is relatively common in nuclear power plants.

For example, EU engineers built a robot that can actually climb walls, even with the presence of a significant amount of radiation.

Yet, the power company operating the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant has not used robots during the current crisis.

Reuters said that an official from the Ministry of Science has indicated that a robot which can detect radiation levels is at the plant. However, Hidehiko Nishiyama, a safety agency official, said: "We have no reports of any robots being used," Reuters reported.

Using a robot would have been a likely solution since the crisis unfolded after the massive earthquake and tsunami, followed by a power failure. Workers on Thursday had to evacuate the plant largely because the temperatures were getting too high for human beings.

In addition, Japan uses robots for manufacturing and for searching through wreckage after earthquakes to rescue victims, Reuters said.

RobotXworld reported, too, that JAXA, which is Japan's space agency, officially known as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, wants to have a robot monitor things while human astronauts sleep. It will also record the health and stress levels of human beings on a ship, and communicate what they find back to Earth using Twitter. The earliest this could happen is in 2013.

Also, robots were used at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Kim Seungho, who built robots for South Korea's nuclear power plants, told Reuters: "You have to design emergency robots for plants when they are being built so they can navigate corridors, steps and close valves."

Now a deputy director in nuclear technology for the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, Kim added that “budget constraints and denial have kept emergency robots out of many plants in his country and around the world,” Reuters reported.

Ed Silverstein is a RobotXworld contributor. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Janice McDuffee

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