Monday 18 December 2017

Robot 'can work at nuclear site'

Toshiba's nuclear inspection robot climbs stairs during a demonstration in Yokohama, Japan (AP)
Toshiba's nuclear inspection robot climbs stairs during a demonstration in Yokohama, Japan (AP)

Electronics giant Toshiba has developed a robot that it says can withstand high radiation to work in nuclear disasters - but it is not clear what exactly it is capable of doing if and when it gets the go-ahead to enter Japan's crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.

The four-legged robot can climb over debris and venture into radiated areas off-limits to humans. One significant innovation, Toshiba says, is that its wireless network can be controlled in high radiation, automatically seeking better transmission when reception becomes weak.

But the machine, which looks like an ice cooler on wobbly metal legs, also appears prone to glitches. The robot took a jerky misstep during a demonstration to reporters, freezing with one leg up in the air. It had to be lifted by several people and rebooted. The robot was also notably slow in climbing a flight of eight steps, cautiously lifting its legs one by one, and taking about a minute to go up each step.

With obstacles that are not as even and predictable as steps, such as the debris at the Fukushima plant, it may need as much as 10 minutes to work out how to clear the object, Toshiba admits.

And if it ever falls, it will not be able to get up on its own.

Still, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) said it might use the robot to inspect the suppression chamber of the nuclear plant where a devastating meltdown occurred after a mammoth tsunami slammed into north-eastern Japan on March 11 2011.

Toshiba began developing the robot with hopes it would prove useful in helping to decommission the plant. No human has been able to enter the highly-radiated chamber since the tsunami disaster. "We need this to go in and first check what is there," Toshiba senior manager Goro Yanase said.

It was unclear when a decision on the robot's use would be made, according to Tepco, which operates the nuclear plant.

Mr Yanase said the new robot, which has a dosimeter to measure radiation and six cameras, can stay in a 100 millisievert environment for about a year and can tolerate even higher radiated areas for shorter periods. At 100 millisieverts, the rise in cancer cases caused by radiation becomes statistically detectable, although even lower dose radiation is not advisable for people.

Decommissioning Fukushima Dai-ichi is expected to take decades.

Press Association

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