What the robots saw: Inside Fukushima nuclear power plant

A pair of iRobot Packbots send back images from inside the reactor buildings

A stepladder bent and broken against a rack of electrical equipment, debris covering the ground, on-screen radiation readings in the red zone. These are the first images provided by robots from inside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the massive March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami led to the world's second-worst nuclear accident.

A pair of iRobot Packbots entered three of the reactor units on Sunday and Monday. Their job was to survey the conditions inside and help Tokyo Electric Power and evaluate whether it is safe to send humans in to continue the cleanup.

Typically used by bomb disposal squads, the robots can accomplish a range of tasks in hazardous environments, guided by remote operators at a safe location. They run on caterpillar tracks, so light debris presents little problem, and have mounts for several types of sensors. A long arm with a gripper hand can turn handles and open doors.

On Wednesday, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) provided video of the robots at work inside units 2 and 3 at the stricken plant. The video was shot on a camcorder aimed at the screens of two laptops, which act as the control stations for the robots.

It's sometimes unsteady, and the pictures from inside the reactor buildings are not always clear, but the video reveals the current conditions in an area no human has ventured to in weeks.

Unit 3 experienced a hydrogen explosion on March 14 and the video shows light debris strewn around the inside of the first floor. In some places, metal paneling hangs from its screws and there's an unidentified liquid on the floor in a corner. It's in this building that the stepladder sits jammed against an equipment rack.

In addition to sending back images, the robots measured the temperature, gases in the air and radioactivity. In unit 3, they measured radiation levels of up to 57 milliSieverts per hour. That's high enough that a worker would hit their maximum annual radiation dose in just a few hours.

In unit 2, the camera lens was constantly fogged due to high humidity in the building. It's a product, Tokyo Electric suspects, of damage to the suppression pool that sits at the base of the structure. Radioactivity was high in this building too.

The robots are among a small squad of remote-controlled devices being employed by TEPCO to assist in cleanup at the plant. A remote-controlled excavator and dump truck are being used to clear radioactive debris from external areas around the site and a T-Hawk unmanned helicopter is being used to shoot video of the reactor buildings from the outside.

The video and data provided by the Packbots has given TEPCO its first look inside the reactor buildings and adds another piece to the company's understanding of what happened at the plant, and how it might bring it to a cold shutdown -- something that is expected to take up to nine months.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags iRobotTokyo Electric Powerrobotics

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?