Robots have failed Fukushima Daiichi and Japan

March 20, 2013, 12:29 PM UTC

By Michael Fitzpatrick, contributor

FORTUNE — Two years since a shudder in the Earth’s crust devastated Japan, the country’s scientists and engineers are still attempting to develop technologies to make Fukushima safe from radiation. But progress has been slow and—because of institutional failings—more advanced technologies have not been available to workers at the site.

A country known as a technological superpower ultimately had to rely on low-tech methods during the disaster, including dumping water from the air to cool the raging reactors. High radiation levels prevented engineers from approaching critically damaged areas at the plant two years ago—and still does so today. Robots that some expected to be on call were conspicuously absent. The country faces a bill of between $100 billion and $250 billion dollars to dismantle the Fukushima plant, and 40 years until it is safely decommissioned.

Only now are robots being developed that might be able to access the most contaminated areas within the shattered reactors’ cores. So how did Japan, with the worlds’ most “advanced” robots (not to mention the biggest population of them), fail to deploy the machines that might have spared dangerous human toil?

“For a start,” says Dr. Masashi Goto who worked on designing containment vessels of Mark-1 reactors like those at Fukushima Daiichi, “neither Japan’s nuclear power industry nor the government concede that an accident like this could ever happen. They have long held that all of Japan reactors are ‘absolutely safe.’” In other words, why prepare emergency backups or robots for the event of a quake-induced meltdown when the authorities denied such a thing could ever happen? Doing so would acknowledge a danger perpetually denied.

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“They said that accidents owing to earthquakes would be minimal,” adds Goto. “As a consequence the companies involved in designed these reactors were told only to make ‘voluntary efforts to make the reactors’ containment vessel quake proof.”

Although TEPCO the firm that built and ran the reactors, and the authorities knew disaster response technology on hand was old, little was done to provide backups, such as robots, in the event of a meltdown. Cheap nuclear power was—and still is—too important to Japan’s economic competitiveness.

Luckily, so far radiation released from Fukushima is only one tenth of Chernobyl’s. The Ukrainian plant blew its top, literally, and spewed, chimney like, nuclear fallout far and wide. Daiichi shutdown, Chernobyl did not. Enough safety protocols functioned to avert an even larger disaster, but the reactors remain unstable. Still, the fact is that no machine exists that can safely obtain proper readings from near the radioactive cores. “It will be difficult to explain where the fuel is. We can’t get close enough for proper measurements,” admits Yoshinori Moriyama, of Japan’s nuclear watchdog NISA.

At the centre of all this are the Daiichi workers—those unlucky enough to have the task, limited to a few moments at a time, of labouring inside the debris-strewn reactor buildings. With radiation high enough to sabotage electronics, American robots donated to the Daiichi plant have been missing in action, along with a Japanese robot dubbed Quince. Human labor for some of the most dangerous tasks has had to substitute.

“Untrained casual laborers used dustpans to scoop up highly radioactive water into buckets; dashing in and out of doors to reduce their exposure times,” says local Fukushima councillor Hiroyuki Watanabe who is studying Daiichi workers and acts as an unofficial spokesman for them. Says one anonymous worker “for all of Japan’s high-tech prowess, none of those lauded humanoid helpers were any good at all,” referring to Japan’s robot programs.

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TEPCO and the Japanese government are scrambling now to get some stronger mechanical help into the stricken reactors, calling on the expertise of disaster robot specialists at Technology’s Future Robotics Technology Center (fuRo) at the University of Chiba.

But it seems too little, too late. For years much of Japan’s robot research and development—billions of dollars worth—was aimed at developing humanoid helpers for the home derided by some as toys, not practical robots like those from fuRO. With authorities prioritising factory and helper humanoids to do the work immigrants do elsewhere in the world, more useful robotics were marginalised.

“The Japanese like to put a face on things, to make them look like a humans or animals. It’s more done for entertainment value than real practicality,” says Joseph Engelberger the “father of the robotics industry” on Japan’s robots. “They should be able to do more.”