FUKUSHIMA, TWO YEARS ON
Two years ago today a wall of water hit Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The flood triggered explosions, and released radioactive iodine and Cesium into the atmosphere.
Globally, the disaster proved a quantum shift in energy market dynamics. Many countries, most notably Europe’s economic powerhouse Germany, withdrew from nuclear power, simultaneously boosting the prospects of renewable companies and crippling incumbent atomic operators.
Japan’s need for energy led to a huge rerouting of liquefied natural gas to the east, affecting investment, European plans to switch to more gas use, the U.S.’s attitude to energy exports and calls for the price of gas to be decoupled from that of crude oil.”
“The [robots] we are using right now are the ones provided for free from the U.S. company iRobot. Most of the information [about the robots] has already been on the Net, so I don’t think it is a problem if I describe them here. What is being provided for free are just the robots and the controllers. We got the robots customized (revamped) according to our needs. The customization parts are not free. By the way, just the tip of the gripper is approximately 100,000 yen [approximately US $1,300].”
“Even if a method works overseas, the soil in Japan is different, for example,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director at the environment ministry, who is in charge of the Fukushima cleanup. “And if we have foreigners roaming around Fukushima, they might scare the old grandmas and granddads there.”
Some local residents are losing faith in the decontamination effort.
“I thought Japan was a technologically advanced country. I thought we’d be able to clean up better than this.”
“Maybe that’s enough? I know you’re curious, people who weren’t there are always curious. But it was still a world of people, the same one. It’s impossible to live constantly in fear, a person can’t do it, so a little time goes by and normal human life resumes …
The men drank vodka. They played cards, tried to get girls, had kids. They talked a lot about money. But we didn’t go there for money. Or most people didn’t. Men worked because you have to work. They told us to work. You don’t ask questions. Some hoped for better careers out of it. Some robbed and stole. People hoped for the privileges that had been promised: an apartment without waiting and moving out of the barracks, getting their kid into a kindergarten, a car. One guy got scared, refused to leave the tent, slept in his plastic suit. Coward! He got kicked out of the Party. He’d yell: “I want to live!”
There were all kinds of people. They were told, No, we need chauffeurs, plumbers, firemen, but they came anyway. Thousands of volunteers guarding the storehouses at night. There were student units, and wire transfers to the fund for victims. Hundreds of people who donated blood and bone marrow.
Every day they brought the paper. I’d just read the headlines: Chernobyl—A Place of Achievement; The Reactor Has Been Defeated; Life Goes On. We had political officers, they’d hold political discussions with us. We were told that we had to win. Against whom? The atom? Physics? The universe? Victory is not an event for us, but a process. Life is a struggle. An overcoming. That’s why we have this love of floods and fires and other catastrophes. We need an opportunity to demonstrate our “courage and heroism.”
Our political officer read notices in the paper about our “high political consciousness and meticulous organization,” about the fact that just four days after the catastrophe the red flag was already flying over the fourth reactor. It blazed forth. In a month the radiation had devoured it. So they put up another flag. And in another month they put up another one. I tried to imagine how the soldiers felt going up on the roof to replace that flag. These were suicide missions. What would you call this? Soviet paganism? Live sacrifice? But the thing is, if they’d given me the flag then, and told me to climb up there, I would have. Why? I can’t say. I wasn’t afraid to die, then. My wife didn’t even send a letter. In six months, not a single letter. [Stops.] Want to hear a joke? This prisoner escapes from jail, and runs to the thirty-kilometer zone at Chernobyl. They catch him, bring him to the Geiger counters. He’s “glowing” so much, they can’t possibly put him back in prison, can’t take him to the hospital, can’t put him around people.
Why aren’t you laughing?”
Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich
Many people are surprised when they learn that Three Mile Island is still making electricity, enough to power 800,000 households, according to the Chicago-based company that now operates it. Reactor Number Two was shut down permanently after it suffered “loss-of-coolant” in 1979, but the licence for the plant’s undamaged core Number One recently was extended until 2034.
“The device, called Workhorse, was designed for an entirely different environment: the dark, radiation-tainted confines of a building containing a failed nuclear reactor. It was never used for its intended purpose, but it reflects a burst of creativity in robotics that accompanied the cleanup of the worst commercial nuclear plant accident in the U.S.
Workhorse [was] a far more complex robot that featured system redundancy—parts installed in pairs so the machine could continue operating if one of the components failed. Its boom could extend to reach great heights and it was internally pressurized to force out possible contamination. It was built to perform cleanup tasks, from power-washing surfaces to demolishing structures.
But Workhorse proved impractical. “They asked for a Swiss army knife, and we built them a Swiss army knife on steroids,” says John Bares, a robotics research professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute who worked on the project as a student. Giefer, the former Bechtel engineer, says Workhorse was never used because it had “too many complexities,” and “you’d have a nightmare cleaning it up and fixing it.”
By 1990, the bulk of the cleanup had been completed by humans and various robots, with debris from the reactor core shipped to the Idaho National Laboratory for storage. Managers of the plant, then owned by General Public Utilities Corp., and federal safety officials decided it would be less costly—in terms of money and workers’ health—to allow the remaining contamination to decay naturally than to continue removing it.”
A graveyard for vehicles highly contaminated by radiation, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, seen on November 10, 2000. Some 1,350 Soviet military helicopters, buses, bulldozers, tankers, transporters, fire engines, and ambulances were used while fighting against the April 26, 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl. All were irradiated during the clean-up operation. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky) (via PICTURES: The Chernobyl Disaster: 25 Years Later - NationalJournal.com)
In this November 10, 2000 photo, the control room with its damaged machinery is seen inside reactor No. 4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Geiger counters registered about 80,000 microroentgens an hour, 16,000 times the safe limit. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, file) (via PICTURES: The Chernobyl Disaster: 25 Years Later - NationalJournal.com)
The Russian robot is up there two hours! Then a command comes in over the loudspeaker: “Private Ivanov! In two hours, you’re welcome to come down and have a cigarette break.” Ha-ha!