Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tsunamis and Robots and Earmarks (oh my!)

The Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant two weeks ago. Lacking power to the cooling systems, concern about the integrity of the nuclear rods is in question. Repair crews dare not risk approaching the cooling ponds to assess the situation for fear of radiation exposure, while low levels of radiation are beginning to affect the region. Without extensive repairs the power plant could turn that part of Japan into a virtual wasteland.

Enter the robots. MSNBC reported Monday that Japan Ground Self Defense Forces requested robots from iRobot (Bedford, Massachusetts)—two each of the 510 PackBot and 710 Warrior models—to help survey the environment in and around the plant. These “battle tested” robots were developed to assist combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to assess suspected explosive devices and explore caves and other areas where enemy troops might be located. According to an NPR story “Once the robots get inside [the nuclear plant], they might use their cameras to inspect the condition of the containment vessels around the reactors or take samples to check the radiation levels.”

Last week we highlighted the role earmarks played in the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program that helps to provide early warnings and disaster preparedness for the states of the Pacific West.

This week we point to another earmark-related irony of the Japanese disaster: The defense related iRobots that will be used in Japan were developed with the support of earmarks requested by members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. According to public sources the company received $2,000,000 in 2008 alone to help develop the Warrior model that will now be used in Japan to help address the nuclear crisis.

Often maligned by reporters as “parochial” and characterized as “pet projects,” earmarks often result in technologies that help Americans and people around the world respond to difficult challenges. Another one of those programs the Pentagon “didn’t want” –like the Predator Drone—has become an important tool for addressing defense and non-defense-related challenges. Earmarks can provide an important countervailing force to the not-so-always-perfect judgment of executive branch experts who often dismiss nascent technologies.

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