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February 20, 2012

APL Quick Response Created New Tool to Assess Nuclear Power Plant Crisis

soldier receives medical treatment
Tiger Shark UAV

In March 2011, a tsunami devastated Japan and led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster—a catastrophe that led the U.S. government to reach out to APL with a critical challenge. Our nation urgently needed APL to quickly tailor a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives (CBRNE) detection system being developed at the Laboratory—originally for use in battle assessment—to help monitor radiation around the damaged nuclear plant.

The Force Projection Department's Jason Stipes and a team of engineers and scientists working on the system joined others from across APL and quickly accepted the challenge. The pod-based system was the perfect solution for the Japanese, who needed to urgently monitor emissions from the largest nuclear accident since Chernobyl. Several major reactors had been severely damaged by the tsunami, leading to equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns and the release of radioactive materials.

The "pods," two cylinders that contain the CBRNE sensor system, are designed to piggyback as payload on an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to gather chemical, biological and nuclear information and samples. "When the UAV carrying the pods flies through a plume, it measures alpha and gamma radiation. We can tell if a reactor has been breached, identify what chemicals and radiation are in the environment and bring back samples—without exposing pilots to the radiation," says Stipes.

Rapid Changes

The initial call for help came on a Sunday afternoon, just two days after the tsunami; by Monday morning, a team from Force Projection and the Asymmetric Operations Department began preparing for a trial run. Just days later, the group—along with the sensor system and a 400-plus-pound Tiger Shark UAV—was off to Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona for a quick test.

Stipes says the original system was geared toward a different UAV than was planned for Japan. The Tiger Shark's ability to navigate mountainous terrain and to perform short rolling takeoffs and field landings in tight spaces made it the best choice for use at Japan's Sendai airport. Its wide range of remote sensing capabilities and endurance were also a plus.

On the other hand, the tight time frame for integrating the system with the Tiger Shark was another challenge. Speeding up a process that normally takes months, the team developed brackets overnight to connect the payload to the UAV. "We almost always produce items fast, but designing the brackets for the Japan mission was an extremely quick turnaround," said Chuck Kerechanin of Force Projection. "I used drawings of previous UAV bracket designs and adapted those to the Tiger Shark." He credits the Research and Exploratory Development Department for quickly machining the parts—just three hours before Kerechanin's flight was scheduled to leave for the integration.

Quick and Thorough Testing

Once in Yuma, however, the fast-paced testing hit a slight roadblock. One pod arrived with a damaged outer shell and a broken nuclear sensor, causing a daylong delay. Repairs were completed overnight, the newly developed brackets and payload were attached to the UAV, and testing finally went off without a hitch.

Satisfied with the results, the APL team, its military escort and sponsor waited in Yuma for orders to fly to Japan. APL staff monitored the events in Japan and kept the team up to speed about radiation dangers in the region, safety precautions and decontamination measures. They became a resource for the group as they waited—familiarizing them with the APL Health Services emergency kit issued before their Maryland departure. Each team member received personal protective equipment including dosimeters, masks and potassium iodine tablets. "APL staff were the experts on the nuclear reactors and the catastrophe that was unfolding," says Stipes. "They provided a wealth of information to the entire team, including the military, and it helped us all prepare for what we might face."

Change of Plans

After the team waited nearly a week, word came that the scope of the mission had changed and the Japanese government was no longer requesting the CBRNE sensor system. The APL team was disappointed about not getting the chance to execute what it had carefully prepared; nonetheless, they were pleased with its rapid adaptation of the design and confident the system would have met the challenge.

Less than two weeks from the initial Sunday morning call to APL, the team packed up the customized UAV and payload and headed home from Yuma to Maryland. Back at the Laboratory, testing of the original CBRNE sensor system continued and was successfully completed in October 2011 for use by the Army.