- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2011

TOKYO | A pair of thin robots on treads sent to explore buildings inside Japan’s crippled nuclear reactor came back Monday with disheartening news: Radiation levels are far too high for repair crews to go inside.

Nevertheless, officials remained hopeful they can stick to their freshly minted “road map” for cleaning up the radiation leak and stabilizing the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant by year’s end so they can begin returning tens of thousands of evacuees to their homes.

“Even I had expected high radioactivity in those areas. I’m sure Tepco and other experts have factored in those figures when they compiled the road map,” said government spokesman Yukio Edano, referring to the plant owner, the Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Officials said Monday that radiation had spiked in a water tank in Unit 2 and contaminated water was discovered in other areas of the plant. They also described in detail for the first time the damage to fuel in three troubled reactors, saying pellets had melted.

That damage - sometimes referred to as a partial meltdown - had already been widely assumed, but the confirmation, along with the continued release of radiation from other areas, served to underscore how difficult and how long the cleanup process will be.

Angry at the slow response to the nuclear crisis and to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that caused it, lawmakers tore into Prime Minister Naoto Kan at the Japanese parliament Monday.

“You should be bowing your head in apology. You clearly have no leadership at all,” Masashi Waki, a lawmaker from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, shouted at Mr. Kan.

“I am sincerely apologizing for what has happened,” Mr. Kan replied, stressing the government is doing all it can to handle the unprecedented disasters.

Lawmakers also heckled and taunted Tepco President Masataka Shimizu.

Workers have not been able to enter the reactor buildings at the stricken plant since the first days after the cooling systems were wrecked by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that left more than 27,000 people dead or missing. Hydrogen explosions in both buildings in the first few days destroyed their roofs and scattered radioactive debris.

On Sunday, a plant worker opened an outer door to one of the buildings, and two robots on tanklike treads entered. After the worker closed the door, one robot opened an inner door, and both rolled inside to take readings for temperature, pressure and radioactivity. They later entered a second building.

The robots reported radioactivity readings too high for workers to realistically enter.

“It’s a harsh environment for humans to work inside,” said Hidehiko Nishiyama of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.

The robots, made by Bedford, Mass., company iRobot, which also makes the Roomba vacuum cleaner, explored Unit 2 on Monday, but Tepco officials had yet to analyze that data.

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