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In Japan, workers hope they will soon get a look inside four troubled reactors at the country's crippled nuclear power plant. So far nobody knows how much damage there's been to the containment systems that normally keep radioactive material from escaping. The intense radiation inside the reactor buildings means it's too dangerous for workers to enter. But a small team of American robots is getting ready to go in. Geoff Brumfiel is a reporter with the scientific journal Nature. And he's been covering the nuclear emergency.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL: Robots are good at going places where people just don't want to go.
TIM TRAINER: The purpose of robots is to do those dull, dirty and dangerous missions - so dangerous is certainly what we're talking about here.
BRUMFIEL: Tim Trainer is a vice president at iRobot, a Massachusetts company that has sent four of its robots to help out at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
The massive earthquake and tsunami that struck the plant on March 11th caused extensive damage. Explosions and fires that followed knocked out valuable equipment and left the area dangerously radioactive.
TRAINER: A lot of the sensors and cameras are no longer operative in the facility, so the robot can provide your eyes and ears.
BRUMFIEL: These robots were originally designed to investigate bombs for the military, and some have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are two types, both of which look like little tanks about three feet long. Mounted on the front is an extra set of extendible treads or flippers, which can help them scale obstacles.
TRAINER: Both of them are very maneuverable. They both have the ability to climb stairs. They have the ability to move over rocks and terrain and debris.
BRUMFIEL: That could come in handy at Fukushima Daiichi, where the accident has strewn rubble around the plant. The robots also come equipped with cameras, chemical and radiation sensors. One type has a robotic arm that should be able to open the door of a reactor building - unless it's locked.
TRAINER: I am not familiar with, you know, what the door is like and whether they locked the door. If they locked the door, likely we will not be able to open them.
BRUMFIEL: Once the robots get inside - and by the way, Trainer is pretty sure that they will - they could use their cameras to inspect the condition of the containment vessels around the reactor, or take samples to check for radiation levels.
This will all help officials to determine the extent of the damage. But it's only the start of what robots might do at Fukushima. Red Whittaker is a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, who has assisted with robotic operations at nuclear accidents like Chernobyl. After that accident, radiation levels were too high for workers to conduct cleanup operations, so remote- controlled robots had to take over.
RED WHITTAKER: The building around Chernobyl - so that's sometimes called the sarcophagus - was put together by remoted cranes that would lift and lower beams and tilt up walls, and by robots in the interior that would cut and dig.
BRUMFIEL: At Fukushima, Whittaker says he expects a whole variety of different devices, especially given the Japanese aptitude for robotics. Some might be used to handle dangerous nuclear fuel, for example, while others remove radioactive topsoil around the plant.
WHITTAKER: I would anticipate that we are going to see a phenomenal enterprise of remote work systems that are brought to bear over the weeks, months and years of recovering Fukushima.
BRUMFIEL: The iRobot team is now working with the nuclear plant's employees. If all goes according to plan, the robots could enter the site in a matter of days.
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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