Nearly a year after an earthquake and massive tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear energy facility in Japan, many U.S. experts still are in Japan assisting the recovery efforts.
U.S. organizations with expertise and capabilities in nuclear energy mobilized quickly and offered critical help in the aftermath of the natural disaster on March 11, 2011. While some lent equipment and expertise, others responded with humanitarian aid for residents left homeless by nature’s destruction.
Radiation specialists from the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory were among the first people on the ground in Japan. Experts from the lab’s Radiological Assistance Program (RAP), who are on call to respond to any release of radiological materials in the United States, took hundreds of radiation readings and collected soil samples in the region around the stricken Japanese plant.
The data and samples they gathered will assist Japan’s recovery and provide a more detailed understanding of the radiological aspects of the accident. The U.S. provided scores of radiation detectors and trained both the U.S. military and Japanese personnel on how to use them.
Also, just days after the natural disaster, the U.S. nuclear industry provided a team of employees from organizations including Exelon Nuclear Partners, Bechtel, Westinghouse and GE-Hitachi. Each day, this team assisted Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) with recovery efforts, brainstorming and identifying possible solutions.
“Some recommendations were simple, such as suggesting using lead blankets as shielding over the scissor-lift to reduce worker’s exposure to radiation,” recalls Brad Lanka, an engineer at Exelon Nuclear Partners who spent more than six months in Japan. Others were more complex – such as developing specifications for new safety equipment added after the accident. “It was gratifying to realize what a tremendous impact the western teams have had on the Japan recovery efforts.”
The private sector also came to Japan’s aid. Upon learning of an urgent need, General Atomics Electronic Systems sent its entire inventory of electronic alarming dosimeters (called DOSE-GARD ®) to Fukushima Daiichi in late March.
“We wanted to contribute and protect the emergency responders courageously working at the impacted nuclear plants,” said Matthew Siegel, president and CEO of the San Diego-based company. “We packed up everything we had and got it on a plane to Japan.”
Dosimeters protect workers from over-exposure to radiation by warning them when they reach pre-determined maximum exposure levels.
Honeywell’s T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) is helping emergency workers at Fukushima get up-close video and photos inside the facility as they work to limit further radiation releases.
Three Honeywell employees, trained to fly the unmanned T-Hawks remotely, have flown five successful missions and captured hours of video and dozens of photos of the reactors. The four T-Hawks in service at Fukushima Daiichi also have been adapted to carry radiation sensors.
AREVA, a Paris-based supplier of nuclear products and services, enlisted its global network in the relief effort. The company chartered one of the world’s largest cargo planes to deliver humanitarian supplies including 6,870 blankets, thousands of charcoal protective masks, coveralls and gloves, 100 tons of boric acid (used to slow the fission process in a reactor) and environmental monitoring vehicles.
AREVA’s Fuel Team in Richland, Wash., sent multiple shipments of supplies to Fukushima, including latex gloves, mine safety appliance filters, coveralls, safety glasses, shoe covers and full-face masks. AREVA’s Canberra subsidiary in Meriden, Conn., supplied radiation detection equipment, personal radiation monitors and hand-held contamination monitors.
AREVA also donated $1.3 million to the Japanese Red Cross.
Shaw Global Services, LLC, based in Charlotte, NC deployed water treatment, radiation monitoring and consulting services to help recovery efforts at Fukushima.
Shaw used decades of environmental and nuclear experience to design, fabricate and oversee installation of a patent-pending, proprietary simplified active water retrieve and recovery system (SARRY) with Toshiba. It is the primary method for removing cesium and other highly radioactive contaminants from water in basement structures and has reduced the risk of contamination from overflow into the sea.
In addition, Shaw has provided remote radiation monitoring and contaminated water transfer hoses, as well as ongoing technical support including consulting services for decommissioning planning, spent fuel removal and management, debris removal, structural analysis and radiological shielding.
U.S. experts will remain on site as the recovery in Japan continues, helping and learning from Fukushima’s experience. Although there is virtually no risk that a U.S. nuclear energy facility could experience the type of earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, the insights gained from that extreme natural disaster will help make American nuclear facilities even safer.