Japan readies new robot to probe crippled nuclear plant

Can a pint-size explorer help find leaks in Fukushima's reactors? Sakura has radiation shielding, a camera, and a mic to look for cracks in the nuclear fuel vessel.

Sakura is designed to listen for leaking water in the reactor. Video screenshot by Tim Hornyak/CNET

How do you contain a leaky nuclear reactor when you can't find the leak? Send in the robots.

Japan continues to struggle with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that was smashed in the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. It's radioactive and very dangerous. Decommissioning it will take decades.

Several robots and other tech are being thrown at the mess north of Tokyo, and Chiba Institute of Technology's Future Robotics Technology Center (fuRo) is developing another. Sakura is a small recon bot on treads that's designed to get into the bowels of the plant.

Operator Tokyo Electric Power is still pumping water into the reactors, which suffered meltdowns in the crisis, in an effort to keep the fuel rods cool. Water in the No. 1 reactor's containment vessel was recently reported to be about 9 feet deep.

That was higher than expected. But reactor water is leaking out, and Sakura will help find any cracks in the vessels.

It will use a camera to hunt for them, as well as a microphone to listen for water. Both are part of a mast that can be raised or lowered depending on the situation.

As the institute's Eiji Koyanagi explains in the vid below, Sakura can navigate narrow staircases and handle gradients of up to 53 degrees.

It has a 0.19-inch-thick stainless steel plate to protect it from radiation as it prowls around the basements of the reactor buildings. It can be remote-operated from about 330 yards away.

Sakura will be tested for a few more weeks before trials with Tokyo Electric Power begin. With luck, it will help find the water leaks so workers can further stabilize the reactors.

(Via DigInfo News)

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