Japan: Fukushima robot operator publishes tell-all diaries and videos, now offline

IEEE Spectrum reports on a pseudonymous/anonymous tell-all blog written by a Fukushima Daiichi cleanup worker whose job is to operate robots (actually, iRobot robots) at the tsunami- and quake-damaged, radioactivity-spewing power plant in Japan. The IEEE Spectrum item includes complete English language translations of some of the whistleblower's blog posts, all of which are now offline. This is a must-read.

The worker known as "S.H." wrote about the hazardous, chaotic, high-radiation environment in which he and other workers deploy remote-controlled robots "to assist with efforts to further stabilize and shut down the plant’s four troubled reactors." Snip from IEEE Spectrum:

The blog posts, which have recently been deleted, depict the operators’ extensive robot training exercises, as well actual missions, including surveying damage and contamination in and around the reactors and improvising a robotic vacuum to suck up radioactive dust. The author, who goes by the initials S.H., also used the blog to vent his frustrations with inept supervisors and unreasonable schedules, though he maintains a sense of humor, describing in one post how he punched a hole on a wall while driving a robot and, in another entry, how a drunken worker slept in his room by mistake.

The material also raises questions about whether Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the plant’s owner, is acting with adequate speed and providing enough robots and supporting resources for the robot teams. It's ironic that, although the robots are remote controlled, the operators still have to work close to the highly damaged and radioactive reactors. There is no communications infrastructure, combining wired and wireless capabilities, that would allow the operators to do their work from a safer location.

Other problems, described by S.H. in some entries, include a lack of coordination and, on at least one occasion, neglect for the workers’ safety. In one incident, a technician not part of the robot team recklessly put a robotic mission in jeopardy, driving a truck over a tether and nearly severing the connection between the robot and the operators. S.H also reports that one day his personal dosimeter began sounding an alarm and wouldn’t stop; when he asked a radiation personnel in charge about it, he was told ignore it and continue working.

The contents of the blog are available on Google's cache. A Japanese researcher has also republished some of the posts on his site. "S.H." also published about an hour's worth of video on YouTube documenting training exercises with the iRobot PackBot and Warrior robots, but the videos have since been made private.

"While the videos were publicly available, I used a program to capture snippets, which I used to put together my own video," writes IEEE Spectrum's Erico Guizzo. "We believe we’re making fair use of the snippets, using them as documentation of the training process, which is a newsworthy event. Note that our video shows only brief moments of what might have been many hours of training and it probably doesn't reflect the operators' current skill levels. The video also includes some candid moments, such as when a worker takes a ride on a Warrior robot."