Award born from one disaster fuels researcher’s effort to mitigate another

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prof. Gen Endo of Tokyo Institute of Technology poses on Jan. 13 in Tokyo with the robotic arm he developed for use in analyzing nuclear fuel debris.

It was 28 years ago that a massive earthquake hit the Hanshin region, and the recipient of an award for contributions to disaster response said he hopes to embody the spirit of the prize’s namesake, who perished in the disaster.

Prof. Gen Endo of Tokyo Institute of Technology was named the winner of the Kisoi Motohiro Award for Academic Achievement for his work in developing a robot arm for use in analyzing nuclear fuel debris at the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima.

“It is a recognition of my efforts to develop technologies that are beneficial to society,” said Endo, 50, who received the award a ceremony in Kobe on Monday.

The award is named in honor of Motohiro Kisoi, a Kobe University graduate student who dreamed of creating a robot but died at the age of 23 in the Great Hanshin Earthquake on Jan. 17, 1995. It was established in 2005 by the International Rescue System Institute, a Kobe-based nongovernmental organization.

The robot arm developed by Endo is expected to play a role in the decommissioning of Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, where three reactors underwent meltdown in 2011 in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami.

The process is expected to take 30 to 40 years, and the removal of debris, scheduled to begin by March 2024, is regarded as the most challenging task.

Endo’s robot arm is 10 meters long and made of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, but weighs just 300 kilograms. A flexibility similar to an elephant’s trunk enables use inside nuclear reactors. It is operated remotely with synthetic fiber ropes that are resistant to corrosion from strong radiation.

Endo’s painstaking efforts on assuring the durability of the ropes were cited in his selection for the award.

Currently, the government and TEPCO have adopted a larger robot arm that was jointly developed by the International Research Institute for Nuclear Decommissioning, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and a British company. Made of stainless steel, it measures 22 meters in length and weighs 4.6 tons.

Regarding his own research, Endo said, “In a long decommissioning process, unforeseen circumstances may occur. It is best to have a number of technical options available.”

Like Kisoi, Endo aspired as a student to become a robot engineer. Following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, he began focusing his efforts on developing a robot for reactor decommissioning.

“Researchers make great strides during their university years. What a pity that Kisoi [never got the chance],” Endo said.

 Endo said that as a lecturer, the more time he spends with students, the stronger he grieves for Kisoi.

Unfortunately, cases of either public- or private-sector funding for long-term research on development of robots for disaster response are few and far between.

As such, Endo is using the occasion of his award to speak out. “I would like to see the creation of a research environment that allows young researchers to continue their work over long periods of time.”

Endo believes that would be a proper tribute to Kisoi, whose career was so tragically cut short.