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Deeper Underground

This robot just filmed what it's like inside a melted nuclear reactor

The Fukushima plant suffered a triple meltdown in 2011.

Storyful Editor / YouTube

A SPECIALLY DESIGNED robot built to go down into the melted reactor of the Fukushima nuclear plant has stalled just hours into its mission.

The robot recorded enough data to indicate that there is a path deeper down into reactor.

That’s good news for experts designing a robot for a future mission aimed at locating and investigating the residue of the nuclear fuel that melted in the 2011 disaster.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. said the robot stalled after completing about two-thirds of its planned mission Friday inside the Unit 1 containment vessel.

TEPCO spokesman Teruaki Kobayashi said the robot collected temperature and radiation data and images from parts of the platform around the area known as the pedestal below the bottom of the reactor core before it became stuck and unrecoverable. The robot had been intended for only one use because of the high radiation levels.

A second robot mission scheduled for yesterday was postponed while engineers investigate the cause of the stalling. Kobayashi said the robot’s treads may have become stuck on a grating or in a gap as it moved.

The 60cm long, snake-shaped robot entered the containment chamber through a pipe and transformed into a U-shape crawler after it landed on the platform.

A 2.5 minute edited compilation of images transmitted by the robot showed steam wafting from inside the dark container, lit by a lamp mounted on the robot, as it slowly maneuvered around debris that looked like small rocks and metal parts. The images contained numerous white dots believed to be caused by gamma rays.

Japan Nuclear The remote-controlled robot looks like an enlarged fiberscope. Shizuo Kambayashi Shizuo Kambayashi

Kobayashi said the test also showed the robot tolerated radiation and that the levels were significantly lower than anticipated.

That means robots can last longer and some wireless devices may even be usable, although the radiation levels were way too high for humans to enter the area, even wearing protective gear.

The radiation levels can be seen at the bottom of the video and at one point reached up to 10 sieverts per hour, a level that would be fatal to humans.

Without more data, it will be difficult to figure out exactly how to safely locate and remove the radioactive debris. Nuclear officials are expected to revise the plant’s decades-long decommissioning roadmap in the coming weeks, with more leeway and options in case earlier plans prove unfeasible.

TEPCO plans to send in a different, amphibious robot next year for a further investigation of the triple meltdown that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Computer simulations and cosmic ray examinations have shown that almost all fuel rods in the Unit 1 reactor melted, breached the core and fell to the bottom of the containment chamber.

Because of the damage to the reactors, large volumes of cooling water continue to leak from them, causing contamination and hampering the plant’s cleanup process.

- With reporting from Rónán Duffy

Read: ‘No damage to any nuclear power stations’ after strong quake hits Japan >

Read: No nukes are good nukes: former Japanese PM’s advice to Ireland >

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