This remarkable piece in IEEE Spectrum giving a timeline of the hellish first 24 hours at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant makes the expected observations: the entire crisis could have been averted with a couple of nineteenth-century or earlier engineering fixes: don't put your generators in the basement when you're in an area that might flood, and if your generators could be at risk during a crisis that would require evacuation, don't put your backup generators hundreds of kilometers away on wheeled vehicles that will have to fight the fleeing traffic, on ruined roads, to get to the crisis.
But that's engineering: you always learn what's wrong by having it go wrong. Once the place went to hell, though, the piece describes how often people could have taken corrective steps if they could have got there safely, which they couldn't, because the place was a radioactive nightmare.
So, naturally, cue the giant robots. As it happens, the people currently designing robots are thinking specifically about Fukishima: "Places like the Fukushima reactors could be accessed by PETMAN-like robots ... without requiring any human exposure to hazardous materials," according to Marc Raibert, president of Boston Dynamics, which is developing the Terminator-looking dude you see here. Plenty of robots have been used at Fukushima as it is, but none of them could do what a person could do. Like run, sweat, and do pushups.
So the good news is that technology, which helped us cause the problem, will help us clean it up eventually. No news there, no matter how cool PETMAN is. But also, it's worth remembering -- those Fukushima workers were far from the only ones risking their lives to keep our power on, our lines up, and our infrastructure humming. In 2005, two of the top ten deadliest jobs in the United States were as quotidian as electrical power line installers (eighth deadliest, at 30 per hundred thousand workers) and solid waste collectors, fifth deadliest at 43.2 deaths per hundred thousand workers. Both, by the way, deadlier by far than police and firefighters, who die at the rate of less than 17 per hundred thousand.
And yes, we're designing robotic solid waste collectors, but somehow nobody gets too excited about that.
Trash truck image from City of Raleigh. Fukushima image and PETMAN image from IEEE Spectrum.