Nuclear Crisis Puts 50 U.S. Aides in Japan Testing Own Readiness

More than 50 U.S. nuclear scientists, engineers and aides are in Japan helping its government struggling to control a crippled power plant. In the process, they are training for any future crisis at home.

A U.S. cargo plane or a UH-1 helicopter flies over Japan every day that weather permits to collect air samples, while equipment on the ground tracks radiation and Navy barges deliver fresh water in the effort to cool fuel rods at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant.

Japan’s crisis is giving the U.S. government a chance to test its readiness for a nuclear-plant accident under procedures revamped after the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania 32 years ago showed weaknesses in coordination among state and federal responders.

“Every time we deploy or exercise our teams, we gain insights that help improve the U.S. emergency-response capabilities,” said Damien LaVera, director of public affairs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Energy Department unit that prepares emergency plans.

There are 104 nuclear-power reactors in the U.S. Chicago-based Exelon Corp. owns the most U.S. nuclear plants, with 17 reactors at 10 sites.

The Energy Department and Nuclear Regulatory Commission are providing technical expertise and monitoring equipment after the magnitude-9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11 cut off power at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant, leading to the release of dangerous levels of radiation. Tokyo Electric used a mix of polymer, sawdust and newsprint yesterday in an unsuccessful effort to stop radioactive water from the stricken plant seeping into the sea.

‘All Over Japan’

While U.S. workers take measurements “all over Japan,” they aren’t getting close enough to the plant site to require protective suits, LaVera said.

The NRC, which oversees U.S. nuclear-plant safety, sent 11 people three days after the tsunami. Additional employees have been dispatched “to continue our on-the-ground activities,” Bill Borchardt, executive director of operations, told a Senate energy panel March 29. The commission isn’t discussing specifics of its role in Japan.

Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko was in Japan last week.

About 40 U.S. Energy Department personnel, accompanied by 17,200 pounds of equipment, were sent to Japan, according to the department. The group includes about 26 employees from the nuclear-security unit’s Consequence Management Response Teams and arrived within four days.

The unit was created in 1999 as part of an effort to improve emergency response after failures at the Pennsylvania plant, about 10 miles south of Harrisburg, triggered a four-day public-health crisis starting on March 28, 1979.

Three Mile Island

“After Three Mile Island, there was a big push to do a better job of coordinating the federal government’s response,” David Bowman, deputy director of emergency response for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said in an interview.

The consequence-management teams deployed once, in 2000, to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a nuclear research facility where the U.S. built the atomic bomb, when that site was threatened by the Cerro Grande fire, Bowman said. The blaze had been set by U.S. officials to destroy fire hazards, and burned out of control, an investigation found.

“There are many, many people who are assisting the Japanese government,” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics, said April 1 at a breakfast with reporters in Washington.

U.S. energy officials in Japan include a nuclear engineer who speaks Japanese and specialists who track levels of radiation based on 200 data points gathered every hour.

Robotic Device

An aerial monitoring system from the U.S. logged more than 130 flight hours near the stricken Japanese plant as of March 29. The system detected the highest radiation levels 13 miles (21 kilometers) northwest of the plant last month, according to data posted on the Energy Department website.

The U.S. is prepared to send Japan a robotic device with a camera to reach sections of the plant where radiation makes it dangerous for humans, Peter Lyons, acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy, told the Senate Energy Committee on March 29.

U.S. operators may be sent to train Japanese officials in using the robots, which are controlled on site, he said.

All data collected is shared with Japanese officials and Americans in Japan and in the U.S., Bowman said in an interview.

The response teams, stationed at U.S. consulates and military installations, have gone out each day to monitor radiation and help analyze and organize data, LaVera said.

Fighting Fatigue

Team members are returning to the U.S. and are being replaced by colleagues to avoid fatigue, and not because of exposure to radiation, LaVera said.

The U.S. Defense Department has said it expects to send as much as $80 million in humanitarian assistance for Japan.

The Navy used barges to deliver fresh water to cool the damaged reactors. Chu called that effort a “very big deal,” given the setbacks suffered by plant officials in maintaining a steady stream to cool fuel rods in water pools. The tsunami knocked out primary and backup power, and water in the cooling pools evaporated.

Loss of water may have led to partial meltdowns at three of six reactors, resulting in radiation leaks, Chu said.

U.S. scientists and engineers are helping Japanese officials think through “a way in order to get a secondary cooling route, so you can actually inject cooling water, take heat out but without releasing steam,” Chu said at the breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

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