On a sweltering August day at Japan’s crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station, four technicians clad in biohazard suits wheeled a Colorado-built robot up to the towering nuclear reactor unit No. 2, bolted it to the floor, and quickly walked away. Hours later, with operators controlling it via joysticks at a safe distance, the refrigerator-sized bot came to life, unfolding like a Transformer as it snaked its 30-foot-long arm through a hole in the reactor wall, and into the ‘primary containment vessel.’ When the arm came out, it brought the first images of the havoc wreaked inside by the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit the plant in 2011, and a much-needed roadmap for how to repair the damage.
‘It was definitely a pins and needles day for us,’ says Marc Rood ’03 whose Loveland-based Remote Systems and Services team designed and built the bot. ‘It’s not like you can just walk in and fix it if it doesn’t work.’
The Aug. 9, 2014, deployment of the Fukushima Inspection Manipulator (FIM) marked a pivotal day in the life of Rood and a small team of Colorado engineers who, just 18 months ago, were staring down a bankruptcy and wondering where their next paycheck was coming from.
Today, instead of job-hunting, they’ve sealed a lucrative contract that could lead to decades of work, and are preparing to move into a larger Denver facility for their growing staff. As a newly acquired division of California start-up Kurion Inc. (the only U.S. company directly contracted to help, in Fukushima) they’re also poised to play a key role in the cleanup of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
‘There are only a handful of companies in the world that have the capability to help and we are one of them,’ says Rood, who graduated from Mines in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, civil specialty.
A Tale of Two Helpers
On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude underground earthquake hit Japan, killing nearly 16,000 people and sending a 30-foot wall of water toward Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) Fukushima nuclear power facility. Meltdowns and explosions ensued inside the plant’s six nuclear reactors. The seismic jolt formed cracks in their containment vessels, letting cooling water leak out and leaving radioactive fuel inside to heat to dangerous levels. To cool the fuel and avert further explosions, TEPCO began pumping roughly 350,000 gallons per day into the reactors. But soon that contaminated water began to leak through the cracks into adjacent buildings and basements, threatening to overflow.
‘We are talking about water that is so hot radioactively that if you stepped into it you would get a radiological burn,’ says John Raymont, a nuclear industry veteran who founded Kurion Inc. in Irvine, California, in 2008. ‘It was already a catastrophe. If this would have gone into the ocean, it would have been a catastrophe squared.’
At the time, Kurion had only six employees. But Raymont was convinced he could create a system that could help remove the most concerning radioactive isotope, cesium, from the leaking water. Unable to reach TEPCO officials by phone, he issued a press release describing the company’s technology. Two days later he was meeting with TEPCO officials. ‘It was like something that would only happen in a movie,’ recalls Raymont.
On June 17, just three months after the disaster, Kurion’s external cooling and purification system was in place at Fukushima, ridding leaking water of deadly cesium, pumping the water back into the reactors to cool the fuel, and storing the still-toxic, but less-so, extra water in 50-foot-tall tanks. ‘The first step was to get the dose levels down, so the workers could get near the building and begin the cleanup process,’ explains Raymont.
Meanwhile, 9,000 miles away in Loveland, Rood and his colleagues at the now defunct company, Special Applications Technology (SAT), also had a hunch they could help.
Founded in 1992, the 125-employee company had developed more than 170 custom-built remote robots for complex nuclear and chemical cleanups, including the Rocky Flats Plant. In Fukushima, they envisioned, they could build lightweight, high payload carbon arms able to squeeze into tight places and lift heavy loads. ‘In the nuclear field, specific, off-the-shelf solution that fits every need. We create the solution. That is our niche,’ says Rood, who joined SAT in 2008.
He reached out to contacts in Japan post-tsunami and in 2012 SAT landed a job as a subcontractor to devise a robot with Japanese firm IHI Corporation. Loveland-based engineer Matt Cole, who had been
with SAT since age 16, got to work on a design.
Then, in April 2013, the hammer came down. Citing significant revenue decreases in some areas of the business, due largely to cuts in U.S. government spending, the private equity group that owned it laid off all SAT workers and abruptly closed up shop.
‘Our Japanese client was ready to pull the plug, but we said ‘just wait, give us two weeks,’ recalls Rood. He and Cole put together a business plan, asked three fellow-employees to join them and began knocking on the doors of potential buyers. ‘We were not saying you can buy this widget from us, you were buying the brains, and the Fukushima contract came along with us.’
Soon thereafter, Rood’s team joined Kurion Inc.
‘Most employees in a circumstance like that just walk away. But they deeply believed in what they were doing and how it could help people,’ says Raymont. ‘They deserve the credit for sticking with it and
taking the risk.’
A Systemic Approach to Nuclear Cleanup
In the coming years, as the legacy divisions of Kurion continue the formidable task of cleaning up water at Fukushima, Rood’s team will be working on the problem from a different angle: looking for water leaks and fixing them.
During its pilot journey this summer into reactor No. 2, the robot, which Rood dubs the ‘Swiss-army knife of robots,’ used an array of gadgets to cut through and move debris as well as shoot photographs and video. The robot also dropped in three mini-rovers attached to the end of an arm via a long thin umbilical cord that looked for leaks inside the reactor.
‘It’s always really nerve wracking when you deploy something like this, but so rewarding to see it succeed,’ says Cole, the brain behind the FIM and now director of Kurion’s Remote Systems team.
Through March 2015, the robot will explore seven other locations throughout the enormous reactor, and ultimately Rood, who is director of business development for the division, hopes to see similar bots
deployed in some of the other damaged reactors at the plant.
Already, the team returned to the drawing table and in September kicked off the Fukushima Repair Manipulator (FRM) that will repair the leaks in reactor No. 2. It will be delivered in 2016.
Even so, the job is far from over.
Kurion (now 10 times its original size) recently delivered a second system designed to remove radiation-emitting strontium from stored tank water, further improving worker safety. A system to remove another isotope, tritium, is also in the works.
Meanwhile, the ultimate core of Fukushima’s problem, the nuclear fuel inside the reactors, remains. In October, Kurion and partner IHI were awarded the ‘concept design for fuel debris removal,’ a plan that proposes using one of its robotic systems to remove and safely dispose of the fuel.
‘We came from a company that went bankrupt to a company that is doing critical work on a problem of global importance,’ says Rood. ‘We are very proud of this.’
Rood’s group is currently pursuing other commercial nuclear reactor decommissioning opportunities around the world as well as legacy site waste cleanup efforts largely in the U.S. and the U.K.