TEPCO demonstrates robot for Fukushima reactor debris removal

On Tuesday, the operator of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant demonstrated the use of a remote-controlled robot to retrieve tiny pieces of melted fuel debris from one of three damaged reactors. This marks the first such operation since the 2011 meltdown.

Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO) plans to deploy a “telesco-style” extendable pipe robot into Fukushima Daiichi’s No. 2 reactor by October. This initiative is over two years behind schedule; the removal was originally set to begin in late 2021. The delays highlight the challenges in recovering from the 2011 disaster caused by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

At shipyard in Kobe, where the robot was developed, a demonstration showed a device equipped with tongs descending from a telescopic pipe to pick up a granule from a heap of gravel.

TEPCO plans to remove less than 3 grams (0.1 ounce) of debris in the test at Fukushima. Yusuke Nakagawa, a TEPCO manager for the fuel debris retrieval program, emphasized the significance of this step for future decommissioning efforts. “It is important to proceed with the test removal safely and steadily,” he said.

Approximately 880 tons of highly radioactive melted nuclear fuel remain in the three damaged reactors. Critics argue that the government’s and TEPCO’s 30- to 40-year cleanup target is overly optimistic. The damage in each reactor varies, necessitating tailored plans.

Understanding the melted fuel debris inside the reactors is crucial for decommissioning. Earlier this year, TEPCO deployed four mini drones into the No. 1 reactor’s primary containment vessel to capture images from previously inaccessible areas.