Nevada team helps Japan during nuclear crisis

Keeping people safe from Japan’s nuclear crisis hinges on radiation measurements that a team of experts from Nevada has been taking for 10 days from aircraft flying a relatively close but safe distance from the crippled reactors, the response team’s co-founder said Friday.

Troy Wade, a former Department of Energy defense chief who pioneered development of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team in the early 1970s, said dose-rate data collected by the 33 experts is vital to decision makers handling the crisis.

The team deployed last week from Nellis Air Force Base with 17,200 pounds of sensing gear to monitor the crisis that began March 11 when a magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami knocked out power to cooling systems at Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor complex. What followed was a series of explosions, ventings and partial meltdowns that released radioactive gases.

Wade said the crisis ranks somewhere between the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in the former Soviet Union and the 1979 Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg, Pa., which involved a partial meltdown of that reactor’s nuclear core.

“Chernobyl, of course, was very, very serious,” Wade said. “Three Mile Island, in spite of all the concern and publicity, no one in the general public was injured as a result.”

Like the team’s response to Three Mile Island, the group of Nevada responders in Japan is a part of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team, operating a key component known as the aerial measurement system.

“What they’re doing is very important because it’s unique and they are trained to do their job very well,” he said.

“They’re not very close to the reactors themselves. Their job is to fly the 12-mile evacuation line that’s been established for the Japanese people and the 50-mile evacuation zone for the U.S. people to measure and record radiation doses at those distances.”

So far, the team has collected and analyzed data from 40 hours of flights and thousands of ground monitoring points.

Although team members are not in harm’s way or equipped with protective suits, the nature of their jobs entails potential risk.

“Always in a deployment like this you’re taking a risk, but I don’t believe they’re being exposed to any significant doses of radiation,” said Wade, of Las Vegas, who was in charge of U.S. nuclear weapons research, development, testing and production during the Reagan administration in 1987 and 1988.

The team includes technicians, computer specialists, engineers, radiation safety scientists and physicists — “the whole broad span of knowledge” — who work for the Nevada National Security Site and the Remote Sensing Laboratory at the Nellis base, he said. Their mission “is to help assure that we know enough that people don’t get exposed to high levels of radiation. So we keep track of what those levels are.”

The Japan crisis represents a new challenge for some team members.

“Certainly it’s the first real test for some of them, (but) it’s not the first response for many of them,” he said.

The Nuclear Emergency Search Team’s roots date back to the early 1970s when Wade and a couple of other experts from the test site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, were asked by Atomic Energy Commission leaders to develop remote means for locating lost or stolen nuclear materials. In addition, they were charged with being able to respond to nuclear accidents or incidents.

The team’s first major test came in 1978 when it was dispatched to Canada’s Northwest Territories to find remnants of a Soviet nuclear-powered spy satellite that had re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and crashed in the frozen tundra.

Dubbed Operation Morning Light, the joint U.S.-Canadian effort led to the recovery a dozen pieces of the satellite, of which most were radioactive including parts of the reactor vessel and its control system. Wade spent 45 days in Canada directing the search.

Fortunately, he said, almost all of the uranium fuel had burned up except for pepper-size particles that were scattered over a vast area.

“We used to joke among ourselves that maybe it was the good Lord that brought it down in the Northwest Territories because there aren’t many people who live there and there’s not much that could have been contaminated.”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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