Japan’s Decline as a Robotics Superpower: Lessons From Fukushima via Japan Focus

Sakai Yasuyuki

Robots were a major force in the automation drive that made Japan the most competitive nation in manufacturing in the 1980s. That glory seems to have faded in recent decades, and Japanese robotics are no exception.

The two articles that follow highlight the failures of R&D in Japanese robotics engineering that were dramatically and tragically revealed by the earthquake and tsunami-driven meltdown of TEPCO’s nuclear power plants at Fukushima. Contrary to expectations that Japan would be a leader in manufacture of disaster relief robots that could have been used in problem solving and cleanup in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, three months after 3.11, Japan’s robots have yet to make a significant contribution. These articles explain why Japan, in general, its robotics industry in particular, proved unprepared for severe nuclear accidents, and how haphazard the government and the nuclear industry has been in developing robots that could have eased the crisis.

The Nikkei article published on May 16 focuses on structural problems within the Japanese robotics industry, while the Kyodo article published on June 9 deals with the interface between the Japanese government, TEPCO and the robotics industry that resulted in the current impasse, forcing Japan to turn for assistance to the US robotics industry.

The heart of the problem is this: it is necessary for any kind of robot to be tested and improved repeatedly before it can be used in real life situations. But for disaster relief robots, it is difficult to find an appropriate milieu for repeated testing without actually going to disaster sites. Strong support from the government is crucial here, but because the Japanese government chose to cling to the nuclear safety myth, it remained in a state of denial about the necessity for disaster relief preparation. Thus Japan’s much-vaunted robotics industry was unable to respond to the Fukushima challenge.

Robots to be used effectively in nuclear accident sites must be radiation resistant. Electronic components are vulnerable to radiation. Microcomputers may malfunction, and power electronics may short circuit. This is seldom a problem for industrial robots. Rather, it is a special feature for military and aerospace electronics. Japanese industries, which have generally distanced themselves from military technology thus have little or no experience in this field where US robotics lead. In any event, it is difficult to shield robots against extremely strong radiation involving nuclear fuel meltdown. That is why Chernobyl needed so many human liquidators and why human liquidators bear the brunt of the work at Fukushima.

As Kyodo News reports, despite efforts to develop appropriate robots in the wake of 1999 disaster at Tokai, the project ground to halt in part because of the preference by both TEPCO and the government to emphasize the safety of nuclear plants. SY.

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