If you have heard that the United States faces no risk at this point from radioactive emissions from the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plants, the assessment probably came from scientists at an emergency command center on the campus of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The New York Times reported Monday that the Department of Energy has activated the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC) at LLNL as part of efforts to predict how events at the nuclear power plant complex about 65 kilometers south of Sendai on the northeast Japanese coast will affect the U.S. mainland and Alaska.
The Japanese government declared an emergency at the complex on the morning of March 12, about 17 hours after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami slammed into five nuclear power plants at the site. The initial disaster has triggered a series of safety-related emergencies linked to the loss of coolant and possible partial meltdowns of reactor cores.
As of noon Tuesday, hydrogen gas explosions had ripped through three reactor buildings, contributing to the release of radioactive cesium gas and forcing Japanese authorities to evacuate everyone within a 20-kilometer radius of the facilities.
The full extent of NARAC's role in disaster response and monitoring has not been disclosed, but the facility and its scientists in Livermore are equipped to assess the situation. The center’s mission is to provide real-time computer predictions about the size, movement and public health threat of toxic gas plumes from environmental and man-made disasters.
From information drawn from the LLNL website, the technical framework for NARAC at the Livermore lab was established in 2000 with the installation of high-powered computers and software dedicated to the task. It combines data from its stored base of geographic and meteorological information with disaster and weather data to create three-dimensional maps predicting the size, density, toxicity and movement of gas plumes.
After Sept. 11, 2001, NARAC’s capabilities were expanded so its scientists could predict the movement of dangerous gas and airborne biologic material, such as anthrax spores, from the outside atmosphere into enclosed structures.
The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) center is staffed with experts in atmospheric research, meteorology, topographic and climatic geography, computer graphics and predictive modeling, nuclear physics, chemistry and biology. NARAC also provides technical advice and scientific support to assure the accuracy and correct interpretation of the data and the resulting predictions.