Japan to probe melted Fukushima reactor with ‘snake’ robot

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A new snake-like, shape-changing robot will be used to examine containment vessels within the Fukushima Daiichi plant, considered too radioactive for humans to enter. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

A new snake-like, shape-changing robot will be used to examine containment vessels within the Fukushima Daiichi plant, considered too radioactive for humans to enter. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Tokyo Electric Power Co. is finally ready to examine the inside of one of the three compromised reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — with the help of a remote-controlled robot that uncannily resembles a snake.

Exploring just how much damage has been done to the reactors is the pivotal first step in decommissioning the plant, which was nearly destroyed by the devastating Tohoku earthquake and following tsunami on March 11, 2011. The robot will allow workers to perform the work and avoid the extremely high radiation levels still present at the plant, which could prove deadly for any human getting close to the reactor chamber.

The information gathered by the robot will allow TEPCO to repair the melted down reactors just enough so that workers can begin the process of filling them with water to safely remove the radioactive debris; a plan TEPCO outlined to have completed by mid-2020.

According to the Associated Press, the two-foot-long robot was taken for a test run this week at a Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy facility northeast of Tokyo, where the robot was developed. Officials expect it to enter the Unit 1 reactor as soon as April of this year.

The robot is distinct, able to slither like a serpent and light the way with a lamp at its front to guide its way through the reactor. The robot can also take on a U-shaped form, allowing it to capture live images, temperatures and radiation levels then transmit them to a control station outside the building. Using these tools, the snake will need to enter the containment vessel through a 4-inch wide pipe then dangle itself and descend onto a platform just below the reactors core’s bottom.

Once its mission is completed, specialists will store the snake robot permanently in a shielded box due to the high levels of radioactivity it will have been exposed to. TEPCO must use a different robot for each reactor because neither machines are alike.

Expectations are incredibly high for the robot snake after earlier efforts and errors produced little success and caused a series of accidents, the New York Times reported. Since 2011, large volumes of water used to cool the machines continue to leak, causing contamination in the ocean, and elongating the cleanup process for the plant.

PBS Newshour science correspondent Miles O’Brien toured the Fukushima plant last year:

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