Robots in Fukushima

Automation is perfect for jobs that are dirty, dull, and dangerous. A nuclear meltdown is a perfect example of a situation in which robots are a better choice than a human being.

Three reactors had meltdowns during a tsunami and two had hydrogen explosions. If there is a situation in which robots are perfectly suited to do the work, this is it.

However, as the video tells us, the robots weren’t ready when they were needed. There were no human operators ready and the original engineer had left the company.

The robots couldn’t go up and down stairs (who is surprised by that?) and they weren’t hardened against radioactivity. Again, something you might have thought would be a foreseeable need.

Not ready

New robot technology is practically by definition not ready. There is an all-robot pizza parlor in France that can make a pizza entirely with robots in 45 seconds. It took 8 years to build the machinery and it was in service for just 3 years before giving up and closing the doors.

This is surprisingly successful, for new robot technology. Usually we see excited headlines about the robot’s early research followed by years of not working and not getting to market.

Often the robot never does get to market. If it manages to be put into service, it usually won’t work. It can’t go up and down stairs, for example. It falls down. This is just part of robot life.

The Fukushima robots had a series of failures and required new construction, detailed in the video.

It is expected that the Fukushima robots will get started removing nuclear waste in 2023, and they are expected to spend ten years working on that part of the project.

Human involvement

In 2018, human survivors of the meltdown were encouraged by the government to return to their homes. Very few have taken the opportunity.

And that brings up an important point.

We may notice that the robots weren’t ready to be deployed and weren’t always successful when they got into place — but how would humans have done? There are situations in which even unprepared robots are a better choice than any human being would be.

In Fukushima, for example, there are large quantities of cooled but still radioactive water in the building. The owners of the plant want to release that water into the ocean. Local residents and fisheries are naturally opposed to the idea — but there seem to be few alternatives. The robots have not been able to enter the water or to process it.

Humans certainly can’t.

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