The Tech That Could Help Save Fukushima: Putzmeister 70Z-Meter

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Even though the government's disaster prevention plan calls for the Japan Nuclear Safety Commission to visit a site immediately following an accident, it took more than a month for members to visit Fukushima Prefecture, which they finally did this past weekend. They faced a lot of criticism for the delay -- "I talked with members for the first time on the 38th day," Deputy Fukushima Governor Masao Uchibori stressed to the Mainichi Daily -- but there's reason for their hesitation: They probably feared for their lives.

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Aside from a few stubborn residents who refuse to be evacuated, nobody wants to be in Fukushima Prefecture right now. Home to the six-reactor nuclear power plant that was crippled when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit the island nation in March, the area has been heavily contaminated. Even before visiting, the Nuclear Safety Commission upped the disaster from level 5 to level 7, a designation only previously used for the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986. (Level 5 was the designation for the Three Mile Island disaster; most nuclear accidents have been level 3 or less.) The jump was based on new estimates on how much radiation has been released.

Before officials can work to reduce radiation levels in the area, they have to stabilize the situation, which could take up to nine months, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) Chaiman Tsunehisa Katsumata told reporters during a press conference on Sunday. In the meantime, residents within 20 kilometers of the site has been evacuated and those living within an addition 10 kilometers told to stay indoors whenever possible. "It will take three months to ensure radiation leaking from the nuclear power plant is in a continual decline," he said, according to the Daily Yomiuri.

While outlining his company's responsibilities in the continuing effort to control Fukushima Dai-ichi, Katsumata emphasized the importance of cooling the plant's nuclear reactors. National Security Newswire reported last week that a "bungled cooling effort" caused Fukushima's reactors to emit "a new burst of radioactive material." Keeping those reactors cool requires an enormous amount of water, most of it coming from the nearby sea and all of it being contaminated by radiation. Plant personnel recently moved 660 tons of tainted water into a 3,000-ton-capacity steam condenser on site, where it is being stored until new pools can be constructed.

To help keep the reactors cool, TEPCO is bringing in five boom trucks from Putzmeister Germany including the eye-popping 70Z-meter, which is nicknamed "the Juggernaut." With a flexible boom that reaches for 70 meters -- nearly the length of a football field -- the Juggernaut can shoot 700 gallons of water per minute without requiring workers to get close to the plant's core. That's three times as much water as most fire engines can handle. And all from a boom capable of curving over the top of the reactor. To keep workers even further from the accident site, the 190,000-pound beast (it has ten axles and dozens of wheels) can be operated by remote control. Should the reactors need to be entombed in concrete like those at Chernobyl, the Juggernaut can handle that, too, at 210 cubic yards per hour.

While a smaller Putzmeister machine is already on-site in Japan, two of the three 70-meter Juggernauts have to be shipped from the United States where they are currently commissioned at ongoing construction sites. (The Japanese say they don't need the third -- yet.) No easy task. Because of their weight, the trucks aren't legally allowed to travel on the highways in some states and even when they're allowed, they only get 2-3 miles to the gallon with a top speed of 55 mph.

Shipping the $2 million-plus machines presents additional challenges. A single flight will set TEPCO back about $1.3 million, according to New York magazine, and there are only a couple of airplanes in the world able to carry such an enormous load. The other option: A slow journey across the Pacific Ocean on a cargo ship.

MORE TECH THAT COULD HELP SAVE JAPAN:

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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