17 Dec 2013

Could British drones help with Fukushima clean-up?

Parts of Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which was devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, are still too dangerous for humans to enter. But not, perhaps, for drones.

Cleaning up the wreckage at Fukushima nuclear plant will take decades and cost billions.

It is also a big ask to find people who are willing to put their lives at risk in an unstable reactor, often in difficult conditions, and for sometimes low pay. Some areas of the plant are still believed to be so unstable that no humans have ventured into them for more than two and a half years, since the initial disaster in March 2011.

But perhaps it does not have to be people. A team from the University of Bristol, backed by Sellafield, wants to use a drone.

When I arrived, there wasn’t a safety culture at all. Lady Barbara Judge, Tepco

They have developed a large semi-autonomous drone called the ARM system which can detect radiation down to an extremely specific location – even metre by metre. It could help the clean-up by going into areas which were previously inaccessible and identifying the worst-affected locations, allowing engineers to plot a safe decommissioning process for the four reactors.

Helicopters and other monitors have been doing this work – but none has been able to get close enough to paint a proper, comprehensive picture on the ground, an important step in securing the site for the future.

Dr Tom Scott, the project lead, said: “By using lightweight and low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles systems, we can immediately and remotely determine the spread and intensity of radiation following any such event. The systems have sufficient in-built intelligence to deploy them following an incident and are effectively disposable if they become contaminated.”

The Bristol scientists hope to take the machine, which Channel 4 News took on a test flight, to Fukushima next year.

International expertise

And they are not the only British exports – and experts – aiming for Japan. An international expert group recently made a visit, led by Dr Adrian Simper, chair of the UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

And even the embattled plant operator itself, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), has opened its arms to global expertise in the form of Lady Barbara Judge, the former chair of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority. She is now one of the newest recruits to a new arm of Tepco aiming to look to the future – but she does not hold back in her criticism of how things were done in the past.

“When I arrived, there wasn’t a safety culture at all,” she told Channel 4 News.

Now her job is to put this culture in place at Fukushima – and at Tepco more widely. All of Japan’s nuclear reactors are currently switched off, and another of Lady Judge’s aims is to get at least some of them switched on again.

But she faces an uphill battle – recent polls showed that 50 per cent of Japanese people would rather not flick those switches back to “on”. So whether nuclear will ever take off in Japan again – with or without the help of the drone – is far from certain.