Long before the nuclear disaster in Japan began unfolding this week, scientists in the U.S. have been trying to gain a better and more realistic picture of precisely 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.
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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 and analyses of hypthetical accidents is designed to help stakeholders develop better protections and responses to nuclear accidents.
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.
The studies are receiving renewed attention in light of engineers in Japan currently trying to avert a full-scale meltdown of the country's Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Those concerns were further heightened today after a third explosion rocked the facility causing radiation levels 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 the potential impact of radioactive leaks on people and on the environment, the NRC said in a statement Monday
As part of SOARCA, the NRC has run computer modeling and simulation tools to study at least two operating nuclear power plants in the U.S over the last couple of years.