Nuclear Energy Insight
Summer 2011—As workers at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi facility worked to bring the plants under control, they were assisted by technical expertise and several types of robotic or unmanned equipment provided by the United States and several other nations.
These specialized machines are able to enter confined or high-radiation areas and perform tasks that would otherwise subject workers to injury or radiation.
In the early days following the earthquake and tsunami, elite units of the Tokyo Fire Department and the Japanese Self-Defense Force used unmanned, radio-controlled fire trucks to spray cooling water into used fuel storage pools at the plant.
Later on, giant pumping trucks helped spray cooling water into the pools. These trucks, originally meant to pump concrete in the construction of multi-story buildings, have spray nozzles at the ends of maneuverable arms that can reach up to 230 feet.
Built by the German firm Putzmeister, two trucks were sent by the United States and another two directly from Germany. Putzmeister says that what it calls “the largest series-produced truck-mounted concrete pumps in the world” can easily reach over the edge of the reactor buildings and into the buildings from above, discharging water where it is needed.
One of the trucks from the United States was being used to pump concrete at the construction site of the Energy Department’s mixed-oxide nuclear fuel plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
Putzmeister was one of the first companies to supply equipment, but it was joined by many others.
The American firm Honeywell sent an unmanned aerial vehicle, its T-Hawk “micro air vehicle,” to take close-in video footage of the reactor buildings. The drone, a little over a foot in diameter, was able to provide a detailed look inside the buildings and fuel storage vaults.
The French firm Helipse also sent three radio-controlled helicopters to monitor conditions in the reactor buildings. The 10-foot long helicopters can take off and land autonomously and were specially equipped with radiation sensors, infrared thermometers and cameras.
Closer to the ground, specialized robots have been trundling around the site, moving debris, taking radiation readings and ensuring the way is clear for workers to enter buildings.
Virginia-based Qinetiq sent kits to convert front-loaders into unmanned, laptop-controlled bulldozers that assist in clearing debris outside the reactor buildings.
—Read more articles in Nuclear Energy Insight and Insight Web Extra.