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NRC tapping tech for better analysis of nuclear accidents

Nuclear Regulatory Commission's SOARCA project highlighted as 'paucity of good data' said to be hampering efforts in Japan

March 15, 2011 09:33 PM ET

Computerworld - Long before the nuclear disaster in Japan started to unfold, scientists in the U.S. began trying to gain a more precise and realistic picture of what would happen if a similar accident occurred in this country.

For the past few years, researchers from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have been engaged in a project called State-of-the-Art Reactor Consequence Analyses (SOARCA), to better understand how a nuclear reactor would behave in a severe accident, as well as what sort of radioactive release it would cause and how the plume would spread.

Similar research on hypothetical accidents at nuclear power plants have been conducted by the NRC and international nuclear safety groups for the past 25 years. What's different with SOARCA, says the NRC, is that it uses modern computing resources and modeling software to generate more accurate and realistic accident simulations. It also examines extremely rare, "one in a million"-type accidents that could have a significant impact.

Such modeling is designed to help develop better protections and responses to nuclear accidents. CNN reported Tuesday evening that an unnamed U.S administration official said that a "paucity of good data" was hampering efforts to construct a model of radioactive plumes in Japan.

SOARCA models also take into account some of the new accident mitigation technologies and strategies that are deployed in nuclear power plants these days. The models factor in updated emergency preparedness measures and plant improvements that were put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Elmer Lewis, a professor of mechanical engineering at Northwestern University and an author of two books on nuclear power plant safety, said today that accident modeling information is most widely used to improve plant design.

However, information gleaned from simulations can be useful in dealing with developing situations such as the one going on in Japan, Lewis said. In an unfolding accident situation, though, modeling radioactive plume data can be a big challenge and typically requires information from a bunch of sensors on the ground and in the air, he said.

Engineers in Japan are currently trying to avert a full-scale meltdown of its Fukushima nuclear power plant. The plant was severely damaged in last week's earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Concerns about the safety of the plant have been escalating sharply over the past few days.

Those concerns were further heightened today after a third explosion rocked the facility, causing radiation to increase to potentially dangerous levels.

The NRC said on Monday that it has sent several nuclear experts to Tokyo to provide assistance to officials there.

Among other tasks, the team's mission is to better understand radioactive leaks' potential impact on people and the environment, the NRC said in a statement Monday.

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