DOD to use IT for nuke cleanup

Marking the final stage of a 10-year, multimillion-dollar environmental restoration project, the Defense Special Weapons Agency last month issued a request for proposals to develop cutting-edge information technologies to help clean up the remnants of a Cold War-era nuclear weapons disaster.

The RFP outlined requirements for computer modeling and simulation and a high-resolution, multispectral imaging detection system that will use the Global Positioning System (GPS) to help scientists locate plutonium-contaminated soil on Johnston Island in the Pacific Ocean.

More than 700 miles southwest of Honolulu, Johnston Atoll consists of four islands, including Johnston Island, which was the military's atmospheric nuclear testing range for more than three decades. In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. military conducted a series of 36 nuclear tests— code-named Operation Dominic— in the atmosphere above Johnston Island. However, three tests failed when missiles exploded at ground level, contaminating Johnston Atoll.

As part of its Johnston Atoll Radiological Survey, DSWA will attempt to re-create the failed missile launches using computer modeling and simulation to determine the most likely dispersal patterns of the radioactive material throughout the island and its ocean environment. The military hopes the computer modeling will help determine how much contamination remains and help prepare risk assessments, according to the project's statement of work.

"We are using Global Positioning Systems linked to radiation detectors to provide high-quality [digital] maps [to help guide cleanup] efforts," said Capt. David G. Rynders, plutonium project manager for DSWA. The GPS direct scan operations will detect and locate soil hot spots where plutonium contamination still exists. "These maps will tell us how much [radioactive] material there is and where it is," he said. "This information [from GPS] is critical for cleanup efforts and is becoming more and more common as a first step in environmental restoration."

Steve Schwartz, director of the U.S. Weapons Cost Study Project at The Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., called the project "innovative and one that could be applied elsewhere if it works. As cleanup efforts go, this one is very ambitious."

Although DSWA declined to comment on the cost of the project, Schwartz estimated the cleanup effort would cost between $50 million and $100 million when it is completed at the end of fiscal 2003.

The cleanup effort, which began in August 1993, has consisted primarily of soil excavation. Thermo Nutech, a company specializing in environmental protection from nuclear hazards, has been responsible for the soil excavation operations.

Thermo Nutech has processed 30 acres of contaminated soil and achieved a 90 percent reduction in contamination, said Nels Johnson, the company president.

By today's standards "the technology we used to clean up the first 30 acres is relatively old," Johnson said. However, he said, "we couldn't have done this project without automating the system and [the automation] has provided a tremendous cost savings for the government."

Rynders said advances in information technology are providing scientists with new perspectives from which they can view the problem on Johnston Island.

The goal now is "to characterize the remainder of the island to determine if it is above or below acceptable levels of contamination," Johnson said.

In addition, the Internet is providing scientists and project managers with instant access to important nuclear regulatory information and is allowing the agency to keep the public abreast of government efforts in a more timely fashion, Rynders said. "None of this was possible in the 1960s," he said.

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