From Japan: A First Person Account

Within about 16 hours after the massive earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Dai’ichi nuclear power complex on the northeastern coast of Japan, two NRC reactor experts were throwing a few changes of clothing into suitcases and racing for the airport. They hit the ground in Tokyo with a single purpose – provide key technical support and advice to the U.S. Embassy.

Just over two days later, the vanguard of what has become a revolving team of more than 30 staff were on their way, including Chuck Casto, deputy regional administrator out of our Region II office. They were part of a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) assistance mission launched in response to a request for help from the Japanese government.

Now, over three weeks into this terrible tragedy for the Japanese people, the team of NRC experts is working closely with our counterparts in the Japanese government, as well as the power plant operator – TEPCO – other U.S. government agencies, and even the U.S. private sector.

We have received tremendous support from the embassy and USAID staff as we’ve taken over a chunk of the embassy’s space as a base of operations and demand all manner of IT support, but we never seem to spend long there. Every day we are off in small groups to various locations around Tokyo to meet with our Japanese counterparts, gathering information on the most current understanding of conditions at the plant and the actions being taken by the Japanese.

When we get back to the embassy, we get on the phone to experts back in the states and obtain their best consensus view of the actions needed to stabilize the plants. Then we are off around Tokyo again to share and discuss our advice and recommendations. In addition to this, we are supporting project teams established by the Japanese government to develop long-term plans for clean-up and decommissioning of the site after it is stabilized. In this latter effort, we are receiving tremendous support from colleagues in the Department of Energy and the national labs.

When we are at the embassy, we are also working closely with the embassy staff, USAID, and other federal agencies to respond to the specific requests for assistance from the Japanese government. For example, we have supported them with provision of a back-up supply of freshwater and pumping capacity to ensure that stable and sustainable cooling will be available at the plant. Through the generosity of the U.S. nuclear industry, we have been able to supply thousands of sets of protective clothing, radiation dosimeters and radiation monitoring equipment that will be important to ensuring protection of the workers at the site.

What has impressed all of us on the NRC team is the commitment of our Japanese counterparts to bring this very serious situation under control. Japan has long used nuclear power as a mainstay of its electrical generation system, so they have lots of experience.

This is a near overwhelming event that would challenge any nation, and I have been impressed at the effort being exerted by those most affected by this tragedy.

The nuclear community around the world is, in relative terms, small, and our thoughts are with the Japanese people and, in particular, with the workers at the site. Many of them have already suffered grievous loss of family and property from the earthquake and tsunami. They labor on in difficult conditions. The world has rallied to their aid, contributing protective clothing and equipment.

Our team in Japan continues to work with the Japanese government to ensure they have the resources to support and protect these workers. These are the true heroes of Fukushima Dai’ichi and they deserve our utmost respect, our fervent prayers and our continued support.

Thanks to Chuck Casto who contributed to this post.

Dan Dorman
NRC Japan Team Member

Low-Level Radioactive Waste – A Definition Based on What It Is Not

One of my co-workers was asked the inevitable question of “What do you do?” at a recent party. Her response, “I regulate the disposal of low-level radioactive waste for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” raised some eyebrows. The reaction was not because anyone found her line of work questionable. Instead, it was a result of not knowing what low-level waste is, or how it is generated.

My co-worker quickly jumped in to explain that while the term low-level waste may sound self-explanatory, it is not that clear, technically-speaking.

Low-level waste is a somewhat generic term that captures everything that does not fit into other waste type definitions. So, to understand what low-level waste is, you first have to understand what it is not. It is not mill tailings, which are a byproduct of uranium milling and contain several naturally-occurring radioactive elements as well as heavy metals. It is not transuranic waste, which has its own definition based on chemistry. Finally, it is not high-level waste, which is a result of the reactions in a nuclear reactor or reprocessing fuel that has been in a reactor.

Basically, low-level waste is everything else. It is created through the operation of nuclear plants, the conversion, enrichment and manufacturing of fuel, the use of radioactive isotopes in hospitals or industry, and the decommissioning of shut-down plants. It can consist of clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipment and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues.

What may surprise people is that the radioactivity of low-level waste can span a wide range depending upon the types of waste involved. In other words, while most low-level waste is lower in radioactivity than high-level waste, this is not always true. You need to keep in mind that there are many different types of material with a large range of radioactivity that could be called low-level waste.

George Deegan
Senior Program Analyst (Nuclear Materials/Waste Management)
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