Fukushima: from nuclear disaster to Innovation Coast

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On March 11, 2011, Japan was shaken by one of the largest earthquakes ever felt leading to a massive tsunami. At over 15,000 deaths, 6,000+ injured and 2,000+ missing it is one of Japan’s worst disasters to-date, costing untold billions to the economy. Since 2013 (and apparently until 2037) a new reconstruction tax means that every employee pays an extra 0.1%-0.4% out of their pay packet each month to fund the scale of the enormous task ahead. Even now over six years later, the reconstruction task is far from over.

Fukushima made the headlines around the world when the tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant and took out any reactors with cooling systems that were not sealed within the reactor itself, leading to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. And while only 10% of the casualties actually occurred within Fukushima (most were in neighbouring Miyagi and Iwate prefectures), people’s lives were changed forever with mass evacuations and fear to this day of not knowing how bad the radiation poisoning was… or still is. For Fukushima, well-known for its great agricultural produce and especially fresh fish, the event was catastrophic for the local economy even though some politicians did their best to go on TV eating local food.

Three years after the disaster in January 2014, Fukushima started discussing how to turn around the effects of the disaster and use the situation to revamp its energy, manufacturing and innovation landscape with a new “Innovation Coast” concept. Signed into law three years later in May 2017, one of the immediate tasks was naturally to complete the containment of the Fukushima Daiichi Plant. At the same time, the emphasis was on developing multiple centers of industrial excellence such as a disaster robotics test center for incubation and testing of new technologies to help robots support multiple disaster and rescue use cases. Other efforts included innovation in transportation with automated driving, innovation in agriculture with self-driving tractors, and a new renewable energy, recycling and forestry framework to kickstart the next stage of economic development beyond reconstruction. A list of recent project proposals that received Fukushima government R&D grants reveals 16 companies focused on robotics or automated robotics, 9 focused on energy, recycling and the environment, 6 on fisheries and forestry, and 4 on medicine. So the government is putting money where its mouth is – it will be interesting to see if this accelerates year on year.

One example of real-world tests announced not at the prefectural but the local government level was an automated bus shuttle test taking place between the Japan Railways station of Odaka and the Odaka Technical High School 2km away. Odaka fell within the 20km radius from Fukushima Power Plant, but had the evacuation order cancelled one year after its announcement. Tests were planned for 2018, with regular services to start in 2019. According to Fukushima News, another test was planned in March 2017 for the town of Namie (less than 20km from the Fukushima plant and in the direct line of fallout from the plant, and that was ordered to evacuate immediately after the accident). As the six-year-old evacuation order had just been lifted, the idea was to automate local public transportation and make it easy for citizens to return to their homes. Unfortunately it is difficult to find any information about any Namie test trials, suggesting the plan has been either delayed or shelved. Similarly, the original article announcing the automated shuttle bus test in Odaka on Fukushima Shinyu News seems to have been taken down, suggesting progress may not have been as forthcoming as originally expected. But Fukushima must persevere. I believe that the benefits to the local population of renovating its physical and social infrastructure in these disaster-affected areas using technology will far outweigh the efforts expended in a couple of roadside tests.

Outside of the government sphere, a major Japanese automotive systems integrator is working on their own tests and moving ahead as planned. In late August 2017, Pioneer announced a tie up for automated bus trials with the company Michinori Holdings that owns bus companies not only in Fukushima, but also in neighbouring Tochigi, Iwate and Ibaraki prefectures. While the terms and scope of the trials are yet to be defined, it is the first example I can think of a multi-prefecture automated bus testing effort in Japan. Hopefully once the testing is done they can tease out and share common successful design patterns in the data and operation of the tests, and deploy further afield independently of the location of the bus company and composition of their fleet. This would help accelerate automated bus service testing across Japan which is still very local and ad-hoc in nature, hence always at high risk of project failure, delay or cancellation. Having a basic operational template and success stories (to illustrate what success looks like), would help local governments across Japan plan activities using such checklists, and get on with running and monetizing the system as well as tuning it to the local needs of their citizens.

As we have seen in many other prefectures, running an automated test is only the start of a journey towards transformation of the transportation network. This journey takes time, and is written and rewritten based on tight budgets, changing needs and political landscape, and technical setbacks on the hardware, software or any other components of the plan. Beyond the immediate targets around the 2020 Olympics taking place in Japan, hopefully Fukushima will continue powering ahead with both their Innovation Coast vision and heavy investment in robotics, in order to develop a modern data-driven infrastructure that can accelerate new economic development. It would mean a lot for those who braved the disaster back in 2011 by staying, those who had to leave and are returning, those who have always wanted to come back, and those simply looking to start a new life in a reinvigorated and vibrant new Fukushima.