| TOKYO, March 6
TOKYO, March 6 Just months after Quince was
deployed to inspect Japan's tsunami-devastated Fukushima Daiichi
nuclear plant, the $6 million robot got trapped in its dark and
Seventeen months later, the high-tech soldier is still
missing in action - a symbol of a daunting decommissioning
project that will take decades, require huge injections of human
and financial capital and rely on yet-to-be developed
"It's like going to war with bamboo sticks," said Takuya
Hattori, president of the Japan Atomic Industrial Forum and a
36-year veteran of Fukushima plant operator Tokyo Electric Power
Co, known as Tepco.
The war began after a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake
struck northeast Japan on March 11, 2011, triggering a huge
tsunami. Walls of water 13 metres (43 feet) high smashed into
the Fukushima plant north of Tokyo, knocking out its main power
supply, destroying backup generators and disabling the cooling
system. Three reactors melted down as a series of hydrogen
explosions rocked the plant.
In the ensuing weeks, hundreds of Japanese workers and
soldiers battled to contain the crisis. Their arsenal of weapons
was often improvised, low-tech and underpowered. Helicopters
dumped buckets of water over the plant to cool it. Electricians
laid a cable to connect the plant to a power source miles away
in what may have been the world's longest extension cord.
The world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl a quarter
century earlier called into question Japan's vaunted reputation
for bureaucratic competence and leading edge technology.
The reactors were declared to be in a stable state called
cold-shut down in December 2011. But now Japan faces an
unprecedented clean-up that experts say could cost at least $100
billion for decommissioning the reactors and another $400
billion for compensating victims and decontaminating areas
outside the plant.
Tepco said in November the costs of compensation to
residents and decontamination of their neighbourhoods might
double to 10 trillion yen ($107 billion) from a previous
estimate. That did not include a forecast for decommissioning.
Two years after the disaster, cleanup of communities around
the plant is haphazard. Much of the work has been handed to
Japanese construction companies with little relevant experience.
Townships around the plant say the cleanup is behind schedule,
while contaminated dirt, leaves and rubble removed by cleaning
crews pile up all over Fukushima with no government decision in
sight over its final storage space.
The Japan Center for Economic Research, a Tokyo-based think
tank, has estimated that decontamination costs alone in the
Fukushima residential area could balloon to as much as $600
Shutting down the 40-year-old Fukushima plant itself poses
unique challenges. A Tepco-government roadmap envisages starting
to extract spent fuel from the most badly damaged of the
station's seven storage pools, which contain 11,417 new and used
fuel assemblies, only later this year. Melted fuel debris is to
be removed from the reactors from 2021 and the entire project
wrapped up within 30 to 40 years.
Officials say the project is mostly on schedule and Prime
Minister Shinzo Abe's government wants to speed up the
timetable. Experts, however, say it may already be too
"It's a pipe dream," Michio Ishikawa said of the four-decade
target shortly before he retired last year as chief adviser at
the Japan Nuclear Technology Institute, adding it could take
Reuters reporters visited the plant three times since
February 2012 and interviewed dozens of experts, officials,
engineers, workers and industry executives to compile the first
comprehensive report on the decommissioning project.
Many of those interviewed expressed serious concerns about a
lack of vital technology, a potential labour shortage and the
vast amount of funds Japan's heavily indebted government will
need to spend.
FOG OF WAR
At the leafy campus of Chiba Institute of Technology's
Future Robotics Technology Center east of Tokyo - nerve centre
for Fukushima robotics projects - students and engineers are
working flat out to create machines to go where none has gone
Some nap on make-shift beds surrounded by robot parts at the
Center's airy loft-like building while others slurp noodles as
they stare at computer screens or fiddle with smartphones.
A slim 20-something research scientist uses a simple
joystick to make an advanced version of the lost Quince robot
climb stairs, turn around in a narrow landing, and descend.
Quince was first deployed in June 2011 and was carrying out
a survey of one of the reactors when the operators lost contact
with the machine later that October. Attempts to retrieve the
robot have failed, though developers conjecture one day they
will find Quince and it could give them valuable information
about the effects of prolonged radiation on electronics.
The new version, called "Sakura" or Cherry Blossom, can
navigate narrower spaces and, unlike its predecessor, plug into
a battery charging station on its own.
Technology, however, must still be developed to accomplish
even the most basic first step - the ability to find and repair
leaks in the reactors and fill them with water to shield human
workers from high radiation emitted by the debris.
"It's like the fog of war," said John Raymont, president of
U.S.-based Kurion Inc, which supplied a water treatment system
briefly used to filter contaminated water at the plant. "They
are only now getting to know what the problem looks like."
So far, Tepco has only managed to insert remote controlled
cameras, similar to endoscopes, into outer vessels of the
reactors. The effort has obtained little useful data on the fuel
debris, a vital first step before technology to remove it can be
One potential device being considered is a fish-like
swimming robot that would glide inside the doughnut-shaped
suppression chambers filled with water to create detailed maps.
A key reason for the belated effort to develop such
technology was Japan's reluctance to acknowledge the possibility
of atomic disasters. Doing so would have contradicted a
decades-old myth of nuclear safety. Robots developed after a
1999 nuclear accident at Tokaimura near Tokyo ended up in
science museums after research was abandoned.
"The government didn't spend more money after that to
develop robots. That's because people were obviously going to
ask, 'Wait, is there going to be a situation so dangerous that
humans can't enter the plant?'," said Eiji Koyanagi, vice
director of the Future Robotics Technology Center.
The first robots into the plant were U.S.-made Packbots,
which were deployed just after the disaster to enter areas heavy
Tepco's most immediate challenge is to remove spent fuel
from pools at the plant, starting with reactor No.4, where more
than 1,500 rods rest inside a pool that was exposed to the
atmosphere after an explosion blew off the top of the unit's
Debris from the top of the reactor building, where radiation
levels are too high for humans, has had to be removed
painstakingly using cranes and other lifting equipment to get to
the spent fuel pool.
That project has a special sense of urgency given concerns
another big quake could further damage the building, although
Tepco says the structure was reinforced to withstand shaking as
intense as in the March 2011 quake.
Another fraught task is to treat and store the contaminated
water that results from cooling the reactors to keep them in a
stable state at below 100 degrees Celsius. The contaminated
water is flooding reactor building basements and threatening to
seep into the ocean and groundwater.
Fukushima Daiichi plant sits like a carbuncle on Japan's
northeast coast 240 km (150 miles) from Tokyo. Its damaged
reactors still seep radiation, although at a rate of 10 million
Becquerel per hour for cesium versus about 800 trillion right
after the disaster.
Becquerel per hour measures the amount of radiation emitted
or the rate of radioactive decay. As atomic isotopes decay, they
spin off energized particles that can penetrate human organs and
damage human cells, potentially causing cancer. To minimise the
dangers to human health from radiation, the government is
enforcing a 20-kilometre no-go zone around the plant.
Every day the roughly 3,000 workers who will enter the plant
assemble at a base camp - a former sports complex called
J-Village - on the edge of the exclusion zone.
There, they don full-body protective suits, rubber gloves
and plastic shoe guards. Once at the plant, they put on face
masks to keep from inhaling radioactive particles.
Front-line workers, who spoke to Reuters on condition of
anonymity, complain about working in the stifling protective
gear, the relatively low pay, loneliness - and stress.
About 70 percent of a sample of workers surveyed by Tepco
late last year made more than 837 yen ($9) per hour, while a day
labourer in that part of Japan can earn as much as 1,500 yen per
Wages are lower than those offered locally for other jobs
requiring similar skills, including decontaminating and
rebuilding areas further from the plant, said Junji Annen, a
professor at Chuo University who last year chaired a panel on
"The money is getting worse and worse, and who would want to
come and work under these conditions?" a heavy machinery
operator in his 40s said as he unwound in the Ai Yakitori bar in
Hirono, a town about 40 km from the plant, where dormitories
have sprouted up for workers.
"I get stomach aches. I am constantly stressed. When I'm
back in my room, all I can do is worry about the next day,"
added the worker, employed by a small subcontractor. "They
should give us a medal."
Mental health experts compare the stress to that suffered by
soldiers at a battle front. Moreover, public outrage at Tepco
has spilled over into attitudes toward workers.
"Tepco workers are at risk of following in the steps of
Vietnam veterans, many of whom were rejected by society on their
return, became homeless, committed suicide or got addicted to
alcohol and drugs," said Jun Shigemura, a lecturer in the
psychiatry department of the National Defense Medical College
who conducted a survey of 1,500 Tepco nuclear workers.
The decommissioning plan says authorities can supply enough
workers through the decades ahead, but signs of potential
shortages are evident, partly because workers are "burning out"
by reaching their radiation limits.
As of the end of December 2012, 146 Tepco workers and 21
contract workers had exceeded the maximum permissible exposure
of 100 millisieverts in five years, Tepco data showed.
Eight workers have died at the plant, including two on the
day of the tsunami. None of the deaths were caused by radiation.
GROPING IN THE DARK
The industry faces a shortage of nuclear engineers as well
as blue-collar workers in the decommissioning work for both
Fukushima Daiichi and other ageing reactors.
Abe's conservative Liberal Democratic Party-led government
has scrapped its predecessor's plan to exit atomic energy by the
2030s but has yet to map out an alternative energy programme.
Public safety concerns persist - a recent poll showed 70 percent
want to abandon atomic power sooner or later - clouding the
For example, at the University of Tokyo, applications for
advanced nuclear engineering degrees fell about 30 percent for
the year from April from the previous year and Tokyo City
University saw a similar decline in applicants for its
undergraduate nuclear engineering programme in the academic year
starting in April 2012 from 2010.
"Who will clear up the mess after the accident? It will be
young people like us," said Yuta Shindo, a 25-year-old master's
student at Tokyo City's nuclear engineering department. "We are
the ones who will be working on this decades from now."
Cleaning up the mess will mean total demolition of the four
damaged reactor facilities and disposal of the nuclear waste in
a yet-to-be determined site, an end-game likely to face
opposition from potential host communities.
Japan has rejected the "sarcophagus" option used at
Chernobyl, where the damaged reactor was encased in a massive
concrete envelope. This is partly because of the difficulty of
monitoring an entombed facility to ensure safety, said Kentaro
Funaki, director of the industry ministry's office in charge of
Estimates for total costs are mostly guesswork. "Only God
knows," said Chuo University's Annen.
Whatever the final bill, Japanese consumers are likely to
end up paying much of it, either through taxes, higher
electricity rates or both, even as Japan's government struggles
with massive public debt and the costs of an ageing population.
That may be unpopular but also inevitable.
"This kind of job has never been done," said Keiro Kitagami,
a former lawmaker who headed a government task force overseeing
R&D for the project. "The technology, the wherewithal, has never
been developed. Basically, we are groping in the dark."
(Writing and additional reporting by Linda Sieg and Aaron
Sheldrick; Additional reporting by Maki Shiraki; Editing by Bill