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Robot Detects High Radiation in Japanese Nuclear Plant

Japan Earthquake_Radiation.jpg

April 17: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, second right, gets briefed during his inspection in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.

Readings Monday from a robot that entered two crippled buildings at Japan's tsunami-flooded nuclear plant for the first time in more than a month displayed a harsh environment still too radioactive for workers to enter.

Nuclear officials said the radiation readings for Unit 1 and Unit 3 at the tsunami-flooded Fukushima Dai-ichi plant do not alter plans for stabilizing the complex by year's end under a "road map" released by the plant operator Sunday.

Workers have not gone inside the two reactor buildings since the first days after the plant's cooling systems were wrecked by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami on March 11. Hydrogen explosions in both buildings in the first few days destroyed their roofs and littered them with radioactive debris.

A U.S.-made robot that looks like a drafting lamp on treads haltingly entered the two buildings Sunday and took readings for temperature, pressure and radioactivity. More data must be collected and radioactivity must be further reduced before workers are allowed inside, said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

"It's a harsh environment for humans to work inside," Nishiyama said.

It is still possible, he said, to achieve plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s goal of achieving a cold shutdown of the plant within six to nine months as laid out in a timetable the company announced Sunday.

"I do believe we must be creative to come up with ways to achieve our goals," Nishiyama said. "I still think the plan ... is as appropriate as we can get at the moment."

TEPCO official Takeshi Makigami said the robots must pave the way for workers to be able to re-enter the building.

"What robots can do is limited, so eventually, people must enter the buildings," Makigami said.

The robot was set to investigate Unit 2 later Monday.

As work continues inside the plant to reduce radiation levels and stem leaks into the sea, the Defense Ministry said it would send about 2,500 soldiers to join the hundreds of police, outfitted with protective suits, who are searching for bodies in tsunami debris around the plant.

Around 1,000 bodies are thought to be buried in the muddy piles of broken houses, cars and fishing boats. As of Sunday, searchers had located 66 bodies and recovered 63, police said.

The combined earthquake and tsunami have left more than 27,000 people dead or missing.

The robots being used inside the plant, called Packbots, are made by Bedford, Massachussetts company iRobot. Traveling on miniature tank-like treads, the devices opened closed doors and explored the insides of the reactor buildings, coming back with radioactivity readings of up to 49 millisieverts per hour inside Unit 1 and up to 57 millisieverts per hour inside Unit 3.

The legal limit for nuclear workers was more than doubled since the crisis began to 250 millisieverts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends an evacuation after an incident releases 10 millisieverts of radiation, and workers in the U.S. nuclear industry are allowed an upper limit of 50 millisieverts per year. Doctors say radiation sickness sets in at 1,000 millisieverts and includes nausea and vomiting.

The robots, along with remote controlled miniature helicopters, have enabled TEPCO to photograph and take measurements of conditions in and around the plant while minimizing the workers' exposure to radiation and other hazards.

TEPCO's plan for ending the crisis, drawn up at the government's order, is meant to be a first step toward letting some of the tens of thousands of residents evacuated from the area around the company's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant return to their homes.

It drew a lackluster response Monday, though, as polls showed diminishing public support for the government's handling of the country's recent disasters.

Those forced to flee due to radiation leaks from the plant are frustrated that their exile will not end soon. And officials acknowledge that unforeseen complications, or even another natural disaster, could set that timetable back even further.

"Well, this year is lost," said Kenji Matsueda, 49, who is living in an evacuation center in Fukushima after being forced from his home 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the plant. "I have no idea what I will do. Nine months is a long time. And it could be longer. I don't think they really know."

Pressure has been building on the government and TEPCO to resolve Japan's worst-ever nuclear power accident, and Prime Minister Naoto Kan is facing calls for his resignation.

"You should be bowing your head in apology. You clearly have no leadership at all," Masashi Waki, a lawmaker from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, shouted during an intense grilling of Kan and members of his Cabinet in parliament Monday.

"I am sincerely apologizing for what has happened," Kan said, stressing that the government was doing all it could to handle unprecedented disasters.

TEPCO's president, Masataka Shimizu, looked visibly ill at ease as lawmakers heckled and taunted him.