Can Robots Save The World? Fukushima’s Nuclear Fuel Mess

Richard Wilcox, PhD
Activist Post

“Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off.” – Joseph Conrad

“Never send a human to do a machine’s job” – Agent Smith, The Matrix

“The temptation to politicize science is overwhelming and longstanding. Public trust in science has always been high, and political organizations have long sought to improve their own credibility by associating their goals with ‘science’ – even if this involves misrepresenting the science” (1). – MIT professor, Richard S. Lindzen

*(This article is dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, Cranston Wilcox, who was born on December 31st many a year ago. He taught me to be inquisitive. – RW)

Setting aside the issue of robots taking over the world (as opposed to saving it) and making human workers redundant; or Artificial Intelligence (as opposed to severe lack of intelligence we see in the world) causing the extinction of homo sapiens, it is true that tools and technology have done much good in the world ever since chimps figured out how to use a stick to prod grubs from a tree for a tasty morsel.

Maybe robots can help to bring a speedy end to the nuclear mess at Fukushima as well. However, while robots are being touted for all sorts of things, such as replacing human workers and removing melted fuel, they are not quite there yet. Remember the promises of nuclear technology and GMO foods? Maybe those Genies should have been kept in the bottle.

Nancy Foust, who is a main writer and editor at Simply Info, has kindly reported to us on a number of technical questions (personal communications in November and December of 2014), and we greatly appreciate her work. SI has done an admirable job of translating and interpreting into plain English the often intentionally abstruse and badly written reports published by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco):

On the robots issue we see bits of information pop up here and there. Most of it regards developments in the robotics field with some vague references to Daiichi. Some of the current round of new robots were introduced via corporate press release or showed up in past METI, TEPCO or IRID reports. The sort of ‘big deal’ type robots that would be used to actually deal with fuel removal are more obscure since those are obviously in early development. So far I haven’t seen anything come out about anyone having cracked the challenge for working in really high radiation areas but IRID and METI have further defined what kinds of conditions any potential equipment will have to deal with.

Foust, who speaks in diplomatic but honest language, points out that this is by no means a “done deal”:

IRID’s task is a big maybe but that is due to the unknown and the next technical hurdles. They are making progress on their research and development plans so far but now they are getting into the phase where R&D will start on things like high radiation resistant robots. The other challenge is to understand what the melted materials inside are totally made up of. This will dictate what cutting and removal methods can be used. IRID and the various components working with them seem to be making steady progress on figuring out the questions given to them to solve. This is a much smarter process than some of the floundering TEPCO has done. It is also a really long drawn out process that is frustrating because that means things are not being done right now that maybe could be.

IRID: In The Red, Seeing Red Or IRID-IATED?

A new report issued by the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning – IRID – (the Japanese government led consortium of corporations and utility companies including Tepco, who are now apparently in charge of Fukushima) makes the bold claim that the melted fuel from Fukushima’s three destroyed reactors will be cleaned up within ten years (2). Is this claim overly optimistic, a public relations smoke screen, or, a reasonable estimate?

Despite the word “international” in the name all entities involved are Japanese. It is only “international” in the sense that IRID claims to have gathered some knowledge from foreign researchers, but in the end it is a Japanese venture. The message from its president reads like a typical public relations blurb, even making the silly claim that “[w]e appreciate your kind guidance and continued support, and encouragement of our efforts” (3). This is not a genuine offer since the Japanese play their cards close to the chest and the nuclear industry has steadfastly ignored the wishes of the public, only to line their own pockets.

In fact, even the “news reporters” at Asahi Shimbun don’t seem to know about IRID and according to their report there are only 20 non-Tepco workers on site at Fukushima. It does not sound like much of a collaborative effort, let alone an international one, but that may be slowly changing with the arrival of Japan Atomic Power Company to help out with the robotics after having safely shut down the Tokai No. 1 plant (4).

Whether the JAPC can really add much advanced expertise is another question. As my colleague Tony Boys who lives just down the road from Tokai notes, “it was shut down normally after it’s expected lifetime” which is quite a different case than dealing with the Fukushima mess (5).

There are probably some bitter turf wars going on as to who gets to decommission Fukushima and receive all that hefty government subsidy and grant money. Tepco, a company that caused the worst industrial disaster in human history was not only not punished but is in the black as profits are soaring thanks to government bailouts and rate hikes (ie., screw the public) (6).

Fukushima is a “win-win” situation in terms of a lavishly funded science experiment to benefit the “Nuclear Village,” a cozy relationship of stock holders, politicians, utility companies, heavy industry, Mad Scientists, compliantly jellyfish-spined academics and the like. Whether or not Fukushima can actually be decommissioned doesn’t matter given all the assurances from the same group of incompetent criminals and lying and cheating bastards that told us that nuclear power is “safe, clean and too cheap to meter” are the ones that continue to promote its usage and benefit from the taxpayer largesse.

Given the massive propaganda arm of the nuclear industry and the compromised mass media posing as a reliable source of information, the public has no chance to figure it all out (7).

Note that the current Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who is still promoting his miserably failed economic policy and continues to advance the virtues of nuclear power, graduated from an “inchiki daigaku (fake university),” Seikei University, a university for the dolt-offspring of rich families.

“Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” – Shakespeare

There are a range of estimates as to how long it will take to remove the melted fuel (corium). IRID’s prediction of ten years (from 2015 – 2025) relies on the assumed ability of robotic technology to maneuver and reach around inside the destroyed and intensely radioactive reactors (readings vary from 5 – 10 sieverts per hour in some areas) where no human can possibly enter. The corium is assumed to be somewhere at the bottom of the containment vessels of the reactors; on the floor of the reactor buildings outside the containment vessels; or some experts believe the melted fuel may be below the buildings themselves (8).

Consider this description from a group of engineering and environmental scientists, who note that little is known about how melted fuel behaves. It is a concern for not just ten, but a thousand years. That’s not as old as Moses but it’s a pretty long time.

Nuclear accidents that lead to melting of a reactor core create heterogeneous materials containing hundreds of radionuclides, many with short half-lives. The long-lived fission products and transuranium elements within damaged fuel remain a concern for millennia. Currently, accurate fundamental models for the prediction of release rates of radionuclides from fuel, especially in contact with water, after an accident remain limited. Relatively little is known about fuel corrosion and radionuclide release under the extreme chemical, radiation, and thermal conditions during and subsequent to a nuclear accident (9).

And that is just what engineers are investigating at Fukushima. As if in a daydream while enjoying the swirls of a hot fudge sundae, let us contemplate the nature of nuclear fuel:

[T]he composition of the melted fuel will impact how it can be safely removed and eventually stored long term. Efforts to understand the debris look at: -Mechanical properties: hardness, elasticity, fracture toughness, etc. -Thermal properties: melting point and thermal conductivity, specific heat, etc. Other: particle size, shape, porosity, density, chemical forms, etc. Part of this effort is to also understand how the various substances in the melted debris are formed. If they are a uniformly mixed material or layers of different materials. Sample materials are then tested vs. cutting techniques…. [The corium consists of] metals containing zirconium and steels or iron due to the melted metal of the reactor vessel bottom head. Reactor internal structures could also contribute to the metal content of this section. This may have formed separate layers as the reactor melted down or may have become more combined depending on temperatures and the progress of the melt down. The top section [of the corium– ie., the melted fuel debris] is assumed to be chunky broken debris. The middle section solids and powders and the portion that has melted into the concrete base mat as a solid. Since they based these off of TMI [Three Mile Island] there was a strong caution that these assumptions could change as they learn more about the situation inside the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. The two meltdowns are drastically different so these assumptions of course could change as more is learned (10).

In addition, Tepco admitted in 2011 that “[p]art of the fuel debris was reduced to particles” in units 2 and 3 (p. 20; 11). “A hot particle is a microscopic piece of radioactive material” (12).

Decommissioning Fukushima is a very complicated, step by step process, akin to unraveling a million electrical cords that are all tangled together, but with lots of radiation in the mix (13). Compared to the removal of the fuel rods from unit 4, which was a fairly straightforward process that has now been completed, there is greater danger, uncertainty and time involved to remove the melted globs of corium from the three reactors buildings.

Foust warns that the corium will not easily be removed:

TEPCO buried an admission in a document about possible fuel fragments in the unit 1 torus room a few years ago. This was found with some of the fuel at TMI and is a known phenomenon in a meltdown where some of the fuel can fragment into very small pieces. So, not all of the corium would be in a solid blob. It is significant in that it matters quite a bit as far as potential for those fragments to move around in containment or to potentially end up in places like the torus room.

Danger, Will Robinson!

There are a number of sources that claim that robots can operate in radioactive conditions, but the last time Tepco used one back in 2012 it got stranded in the torus room of the reactor.

IRID reports that there are already a number of robots can can be used for decontamination and inspection at the plant, which will be crucial for preparing the task of fuel removal (14). However, as Foust noted earlier, it is not clear if there is a specific robot that can remove corium, a rather tricky task, and perhaps that is why so many people say the robots are still in the “R&D” phase. The corium-removing robot, if it is actually needed, does not yet exist, to our knowledge.

One high-technology oriented website explains the general idea, that in order to remove “the three damaged nuclear cores”:

[It] could take at least two decades. First, containment vessels must be flooded with water to shield the radioactive fuel. Submersible robots — adapted from deep-sea oil well inspectors — will map the fuel assemblies in the pressure vessels. To break up the mess of metal pooled at the bottom of the pressure vessels, they’ll need long drills capable of reaching 80 feet down (even longer if fuel leaked down into the containment vessel below). Then machines will lift the debris — which still requires a lot more research to understand — into radiation-shielded transport casks and take them to a storage facility to be named later (15).

According to the above report robots would not be needed to pull out the corium, only special “machines.” Perhaps it is a matter of semantics.

A report from the Wall Street Journal sees the “plus side” of the world’s worst industrial accident. It’s the idea of “in order to bake a cake you have to break a few eggs.” After all, without war technology where would the American economy be?

The government has earmarked spending on technological development for the Fukushima decommissioning of about ¥88 billion ($854 million) through the next fiscal year. The cost beyond that period is anyone’s guess. On the plus side: the technology could be applied elsewhere. While no other nuclear plant in the world is in as precarious a state as Fukushima, a greater use of robots would reduce risks and exposure to radiation for plant workers. In addition, the robot technology team at Chiba is working with nuclear-plant manufacturers to create an automated decommissioning package using the technologies being developed for Fukushima that could help in shutting down aging plants in the U.S. and Europe. ‘You can turn a problem into an opportunity,’ said Takayuki Furuta, director of Chiba’s robotic technology center (16).

But can robots, whatever their role in the process, handle the high levels of radiation near the corium? According to the science literature, it is theoretically possible, the key issue is “shielding” the robots from intense radiation:

The radiation levels and dose rates in these example applications are often sufficiently large to justify the application of robotics and remote operations. They are, however, well within the range of engineering acceptability with regard to design and fielding of viable and reliable systems. With proper selection of components giving attention to radiation resistance, with the design of appropriate shielding either by employing direct shielding or by using indirect shielding of critical components provided by other, more radiation-resistant components, and by providing adequate maintenance with planned replacement of degraded parts, the remote systems engineer can field remotely operated devices that can accomplish the required tasks with appropriate reliability in these and similar nuclear environments (17).

That is all fine and good as far as theoretical science goes, but engineering experts stress that there are major differences between the meltdowns at TMI and Chernobyl vs Fukushima so those experiences may be of limited value (18). Another reason for uncertainty is that:

The nuclear industry never embraced robots like the auto industry or the oil and gas industry because it didn’t make economical sense. Auto makers use robots because they help make cars cheaper; the oil industry uses ROVs because that’s the only way they can get to deepwater reserves. The nuclear industry never had the incentive to adopt robots on the same scale (19).

Yeah, especially since the nuclear industry can hire low-paid, disposable human laborers whenever it needs them (20).

One Helluva’ A Way To Boil Water

Many dangers lie ahead including that Fukushima is highly prone to earthquakes:

IRID has made some progress on their research to find ways to seal the containment structures at Fukushima Daiichi. The plan has been to flood the containment structures in order to provide shielding during the fuel removal procedures. Concern has been raised about the ability of these structures to hold the weight and pressure of that much water or how this would impact the structure during an earthquake. The structures are already severely damaged along with the many locations where they leak. The current research effort is looking for ways to try to seal the leaks in each of the areas known to be a leak path for the containment structure. One aspect that has not been discussed is what would happen if these structures did have a failure and leak after flooding. It is known that the reactor containment structures contain some loose fragmented fuel and other highly radioactive debris. A major leak could let loose a considerable radioactive slurry that would need to be quickly contained and remediated (21).

If We Sent A Man To The Muon, Then…

One example of possible progress is the use of a new gizmo called “muon.”

TEPCO and contractor Toshiba plan to install muon detectors… [in 2015] at Fukushima Daiichi. This technology will allow scientists to ‘image’ the melted reactor fuel and hopefully identify the location of the fuel” (22). “[However][t]here will still be considerable challenges to an actual installation [of muon]. In order to do the actual detection on the containment structure of each reactor, one of the two muon units will need to be buried near the reactor buildings. Contaminated groundwater and underground structures pose problems with this. High levels of contamination outside the reactor buildings also pose problems with operating the detectors and to actually place the containers. Areas such as the 10,000 millisievert readings near the unit 1 & 2 vent tower may pose considerable problems for installing equipment near those buildings (23).

Other Perspectives

Ken Buesseler, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution commented on the decommissioning process at Fukushima in June of 2014:

You don’t really know how easy it would be to extract any of the most concentrated materials… The solution then to either entomb, leave in place, or remove can’t be made until you know more. I’m hearing 30, 40, 50 years and really open ended as to whether they can really remove the radioactive materials from the site… (24).

In 2012, nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen estimated that the Fukushima clean up will take between 300 – 500 years. Maybe he was exaggerating for effect and maybe he will be right but none of our sacred souls will ever know by that time (25). Gundersen also speculated that the corium is “lying on the concrete” at the foundation of the reactor buildings, which would be outside the containment vessels. He did not mention robotics as a possible solution to remove the melted fuel but assumed that eventually the site would have to be entombed in concrete (26).

Richard Wilcox is a contributing editor and writer for the book: Fukushima: Dispossession or Denuclearization? (2014) and a Tokyo-based teacher and writer who holds a PhD in environmental studies. He is a regular contributor to the world’s leading website exposing the Fukushima nuclear disaster,, and a regular contributor to Activist Post. His radio interviews and articles are archived at and he can be reached at


1. Climate Science: Is it Currently Designed to Answer Questions?

2. Research and Development Programs for Decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station

3. IRID 2014

4. Japan Atomic Power to deploy 100 specialists in robotics to help with Fukushima dismantling

5. Tokai Nuclear Power Plantōkai_Nuclear_Power_Plant

6. Tepco posts solid first-half profit sans reactors, rate hikes

7. 90+ Methods And Lies Used By The Nuclear Industry To Cover Up The Fukushima Mega Nuclear Disaster

8. Nuclear Expert: Fukushima fuel suspected to be in ground… “it’s going to melt right down into the ground” when heat isn’t removed, that’s why these are so dangerous

9. Nuclear Fuel in a Reactor Accident

10. Fukushima Daiichi Updates From IRID Part 4; Fuel Debris Study

11. MAAP analysis and Core concrete reaction November 30, 2011

12. Hot particle

13. IRID Part 5; Fuel Debris Research

14. Fukushima Daiichi Updates From IRID Part 2; New Robots & Work

15. Meet the team of robots who will dismantle Fukushima

16. Robots Star in Cleanup of Japanese Nuclear Plant

17. Robotics, Remote Systems, and Radiation

18. Dismantling Fukushima: The World’s Toughest Demolition Project

19. Can Japan Send In Robots To Fix Troubled Nuclear Reactors?

20. The Nuclear Mafia Derails Democracy In Japan

21. Fukushima Daiichi Updates From IRID Part 3; Testing The Goo

22. Muon Detectors To Be Installed At Fukushima Daiichi Next Year

23. Muon Detectors Tests Begin In Japan Towards Fuel Detection at Fukushima Daiichi http:/

24. Japan Journalist: Melted nuclear fuel going through Fukushima containment vessels

25. Arnold Gundersen with the latest on Fukushima, including the perilous worldwide consequences if reactor no. 4 collapses

26. Arnold Gundersen with another update on the unfolding effects of the Fukushima disaster

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