Fukushima Robot Operator Writes Tell-All Blog
An anonymous worker at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant has written dozens of blog posts describing the ups and downs of his experience as one of the lead robot operators at the crippled facility.
His blog provides a window into the complex and dangerous work environment faced by the operators, a small group of young technicians who, like other front-line personnel, must approach areas of high radiation, deploying remote-controlled robots to assist with efforts to further stabilize and shut down the plant’s four troubled reactors.
The blog posts, which have recently been deleted, depict the operators’ extensive robot training exercises, as well actual missions, including surveying damage and contamination in and around the reactors and improvising a robotic vacuum to suck up radioactive dust. The author, who goes by the initials S.H., also used the blog to vent his frustrations with inept supervisors and unreasonable schedules, though he maintains a sense of humor, describing in one post how he punched a hole on a wall while driving a robot and, in another entry, how a drunken worker slept in his room by mistake.
The material also raises questions about whether Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the plant’s owner, is acting with adequate speed and providing enough robots and supporting resources for the robot teams. It’s ironic that, although the robots are remote controlled, the operators still have to work close to the highly damaged and radioactive reactors. There is no communications infrastructure, combining wired and wireless capabilities, that would allow the operators to do their work from a safer location.
Other problems, described by S.H. in some entries, include a lack of coordination and, on at least one occasion, neglect for the workers’ safety. In one incident, a technician not part of the robot team recklessly put a robotic mission in jeopardy, driving a truck over a tether and nearly severing the connection between the robot and the operators. S.H also reports that one day his personal dosimeter began sounding an alarm and wouldn’t stop; when he asked a radiation personnel in charge about it, he was told ignore it and continue working.
But what is perhaps most significant about the blog is its technical content. S.H. is part of a team assigned to operate robots provided by U.S. company iRobot. The robots, two PackBots and two Warriors, known for their explosive-disposal work in Iraq and Afghanistan, have performed remarkably well at Fukushima, even after repeated jobs in high-radiation environments, which damage electronics.
By explaining what works and what doesn’t, S.H. made his blog must-read material for companies and researchers developing robots for emergency situations. One Japanese roboticist I spoke to, who asked not to be named because he’s working on a competing robot, called the operators “heroes” for their work and said the blog provides details “crucial for making a good machine.”