Nuclear Test Gauges Beat CNN, Aid Radiation Watch in Japan

Devices used to monitor a potential ban on atomic-weapons testing are helping warn of possible tsunamis from aftershocks in Japan and may aid in tracking radiation leaks from the country’s damaged nuclear plants.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s preparatory commission sent data on March 11 to seven tsunami warning centers in the Asia-Pacific region, including in Japan and the U.S., officials said in a telephone interview yesterday from Vienna.

The seismic detection system delivers earthquake data “more quickly than many other sources,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. Radiation monitors provide reliable information on radiation plumes, “whether the source is from a nuclear weapons explosion or nuclear power accident,” he said.

The system, based in Vienna, has about 270 of 337 planned monitoring stations operating worldwide and today attracted the attention of the United Nations atomic-energy agency.

Yukiya Amano, the Japanese director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said today that he called Tibor Toth, the executive secretary of the test-ban treaty organization, to discuss how the two organizations can cooperate.

Drawing on Expertise

The energy agency wants to draw on the treaty organization’s expertise on radioactive nuclides and geophysics, Amano told reporters in Vienna, without providing specifics. Amano said new information about earthquake damage to reactor units 1 and 2 at the Fukushima plant is “worrying.”

The test-ban treaty, while not yet in force, has been signed by 182 countries. The Obama administration plans to press the U.S. Senate to ratify the agreement, joining 150 other countries that have done so with the aim of curbing the spread of nuclear weapons.

The Senate rejected ratification in 1999, and the Obama administration will have to overcome opponents who question whether the treaty can be enforced and whether the reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile can be verified without testing.

Wide Coverage

The treaty organization has an annual budget of about $110 million, said Annika Thunborg, the group’s spokeswoman. President Barack Obama’s budget request to Congress for the year starting Oct. 1 includes $33 million for the monitoring system, which provides coverage in some areas where the U.S.’s own system doesn’t reach, according to Kimball’s group.

Countries request the treaty organization’s data “due to the reliability of our system, our network and the global nature of our network as well,” Lassina Zerbo, the officer-in-charge and director of its international data center, said in the telephone interview yesterday.

The seismic monitors have been found to generate data up to three minutes faster than other methods, Thunborg said.

It provided quick feedback after North Korea’s nuclear test in 2009, Zerbo said.

“While CNN was still mentioning that there was an earthquake that struck in that region, our information was that it was unlikely to be an earthquake but more likely an explosion,” he said.

Thirty minutes later, Zerbo said, North Korea announced that it had conducted a nuclear test.

The monitoring system also will include 80 radionuclide monitors, of which 63 are operational, Thunborg said. The monitors can help determine how much and what kind of radiation is moving through the atmosphere and where it is likely to go, based on weather patterns, she said.

Of the 10 stations in the Asia-Pacific region, the closest to Japan are on Wake Island in the northern Pacific and on Guam, both U.S. territories. So far, the system hasn’t detected any radiation, possibly because radiation moves slowly and hasn’t yet reached the stations, Thunborg said.

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