Lessons from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant Crisis

Dr. Julie Pullen investigates environmental crisis response

5/21/2013

Dr. Julie Pullen is an expert in modeling chemical, biological, and radiological dispersion in coastal cities. In the wake of the Fukushima Nuclear Plant Crisis, she was involved in initial efforts to predict the effects of radioactive emissions leaked into the atmosphere and ocean. Her findings have now been published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

The devastating March 2011 earthquake was the most powerful known earthquake to ever hit Japan, triggering a powerful tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The plant’s cooling systems failed, leading to a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and the release of radioactive materials.

“The earthquake and tsunami began a chain of events that spiraled out of control. The nuclear meltdown at Fukushima emphasized the importance of accurate and reliable atmospheric and oceanic modeling,” says Dr. Michael Bruno, Dean of the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science. “Dr. Pullen’s analysis will help scientists, researchers, and decision-makers prepare for future emergencies.”

Dr. Pullen and her colleagues organized a special session at the annual George Mason University Conference on Atmospheric Transport and Dispersion in July 2011 to review the response to the crisis.  Their conclusions include a summary of the major release events in the atmosphere and ocean during the crisis, review of the air-sea modeling tools used, analysis of the emergency response decisions, and insights and recommendations for improving prediction and response in future crises.

Findings suggest a range of responses between over-reaction fueled by worst-case scenarios and inaction driven by uncertainty. The reactions of various agencies to the Fukushima incident provide examples of both extremes such as overly large evacuation zones and delays in decision-making. In the first months after the accident, labs and agencies worked independently of each other, with little data-sharing. Decision-makers were unaware of modeling efforts that could have considerably informed their decisions. Participants concluded that these important communication linkages should be developed in advance of the next crisis to produce a more coordinated and effective emergency response.

In such a large nuclear power plant crisis, no single model could simultaneously account for important factors such as the transport, dispersion, and fate of radioactive material.  The complex variations of the flow of the nearby bodies of water also made it particularly difficult to forecast the trajectory of contaminants into the ocean, requiring the development of improved models. According to Dr. Pullen, more accurate prediction requires a physical coupling of the oceanic and atmospheric models.

“There was a large consensus among those who participated that the primary deficiencies in the atmospheric and ocean models were related to the lack of good source-emission information, such as locations and elevations of sources, variations in mass release rates, and chemical and physical compositions,” says Dr. Pullen. “This lack of information about the source terms led to inconsistency and indecision among agencies and governments.”

Dr. Pullen is Director of the Center for Secure and Resilient Maritime Commerce at Stevens Institute of Technology, where she uses high-resolution ocean-atmosphere modeling in order to understand and forecast the dynamics of coastal urban regions throughout the world. She pioneered the two-way integration of a high-resolution mesoscale atmosphere and ocean model for realistic applications in the coastal zone. Her work formed the foundation and motivation for the transition of a state-of-the-art, high-resolution, globally re-locatable coupled ocean, atmosphere, and wave model into operational use for diverse applications such as mission planning by the Navy SEALs. Dr. Pullen recently presented an updated analysis of the Fukushima crisis with new models and new data.

About the Center for Secure and Resilient Maritime Commerce

The Center for Secure and Resilient Maritime Commerce (CSR), along with the University of Hawaii’s National Center for Islands, Maritime, and Extreme Environments Security (CIMES), constitute the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Center of Excellence for Maritime, Island and Extreme/Remote Environment Security (MIREES).  The CSRsupports DHS efforts to provide for the safe and secure use of our nation’s maritime domain (including island and extreme environments, and inland waterways), and a resilient MTS, through advancement of the relevant sciences and development of the new workforce.
The CSR strategy to achieve its vision centers on the creation and sustainment of a truly collaborative research and education enterprise that draws on the discipline-specific strengths of partner institutions, their intellectual and physical infrastructure assets, and their leveraged relevant non-DHS research and education activities.  The Center possesses extraordinarily diverse expertise and significant experience in developing new knowledge, models, tools, policies and procedures, and education/training methodologies related to maritime security and safety.  Learn more: www.stevens.edu/csr