- US Supercomputer Experts Assess Radiation Risks Amid
Crisis At Fukushima Nuclear Facility
- By Aliya Sternstein
- March 14, 2011
- The U.S. agency charged with protecting America's nuclear
weapons has deployed a team of stateside supercomputer experts to gauge
the radiation risks posed by the nuclear crisis in Japan.
- In addition to safeguarding the nuclear stockpile, the
National Nuclear Security Administration is regarded as the chief responder
to any radiological incident within the United States. As such, some experts
say NNSA is uniquely positioned to aid in Japan, where explosions rocked
a nuclear power plant following an 8.9 magnitude earthquake on Friday.
- The ability of the agency, which is part of the Energy
Department, to arm decision-makers with accurate information about the
extent of the nuclear threat largely rests on supercomputers.
- NNSA officials on Monday said they have activated the
National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center -- staffed by computer scientists,
nuclear scientists and meteorologists -- to provide U.S. authorities with
real-time estimates on the spread of radioactive materials in the atmosphere.
The squad's specialists plug data in to supercomputer algorithms on radiation
doses, exposure, hazard areas, meteorological conditions and other factors
to produce predictive models.
- "NNSA has probably the world's premier set of codes
that are capable of doing advanced simulations on all things nuclear,"
said Stanley C. Ahalt director of the Renaissance Computing Institute in
the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. "Not only do they have
codes that are capable of understanding the degrading of the nuclear stockpile,
but also that are capable of simulating, at the physical level, very sophisticated
interactions between materials that are necessary for reactors to operate."
- The crew is located in California at the Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory, which houses the BlueGene/L and Dawn supercomputers,
ranked Nos. 12 and 16 on the biannual list of the world's most powerful
supercomputers. A machine in China holds the No. 1 spot on the Top 500
list, but, Ahalt said, "the Chinese don't have anywhere near the experience
in working on these types of problems that NNSA has."
- Shaking caused by Friday's quake and a subsequent tsunami
knocked out cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-chi nuclear complex, which
has led to some melting in reactor cores. "Each of these reactors
was constructed at different times with different materials and is at different
levels of aging," Ahalt said.
- Now, Japanese officials are rushing to cool down fuel
rods via manual methods, such as spraying water into the reactors, to prevent
a meltdown, which likely would have lasting, deadly effects.
- Destruction on the scale of the 1986 Chernobyl accident
that leaked massive amounts of radioactive materials into the environment
is not expected. "But the residual heat is still captured in those
uranium rods," Ahalt noted. NNSA has the tools to form assumptions
on how the core material might degrade, he said.
- NNSA officials are in communication with Japanese officials,
the U.S. agency said on Monday.
- "Senior officials and technical experts from the
Department of Energy continue to be in close contact with other agencies
as well as with our Japanese counterparts as we work to assess what is
a very serious and fluid situation," NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera
said. "The United States will continue to work closely with the Japanese
government and will provide whatever assistance they request to help them
bring the reactors under control."
- State Department officials on Monday advised U.S. citizens
in Japan to heed the directions of Japanese authorities in vacating the
- "Japan's Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency has recommended
that people who live within 20 kilometers of the Fukushima Nuclear Power
Plant evacuate the area immediately," said John V. Roos, U.S. ambassador
to Japan. "We are confident that the government of Japan is doing
all it can to respond to this serious situation."
- On Sunday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which polices
U.S. commercial nuclear power plants, said American officials do not foresee
dangerous amounts of radiation reaching the United States.
- "All the available information indicates weather
conditions have taken the small releases from the Fukushima reactors out
to sea, away from the population," NRC officials said in a statement
"Given the thousands of miles between the two countries, Hawaii, Alaska,
the U.S. Territories and the U.S. West Coast are not expected to experience
any harmful levels of radioactivity."
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