One of Savannah River Site's most advanced labs is helping to define the radioactive plume from Japan's Fukushima reactor.
"We analyze for radiological contaminants in soil," said Ken Cheeks, the manager of the site's Environmental Bioassay Laboratory.
Since the March 11 tsunami, hundreds of soil and air samples have been flown from Japan to SRS, where tests were performed to detect varying levels of radionuclides.
"It helps to paint a picture of the plume from the incident," Cheeks said. "Obviously, the closer to the reactor, the more radioactive contaminants you'll see in soil samples."
The lab and its sensitive technology are part of the nation's Consequence Management Home Team, a network within the U.S. Energy Department responsible for responding to nuclear emergencies.
"The quicker you can get results, the better they can respond," Cheeks said, adding that the lab's work on the Japan crisis illustrates its readiness to respond to unforeseen events.
Data compiled at SRS and other facilities involved in the project will be used to evaluate human exposure hazards and assist Japan's government in assessing environmental and agricultural impacts associated with the nuclear event.
Many samples sent to South Carolina were from farmland in the region surrounding the Fukushima reactor complex.
Air samples sent to SRS included those collected at the U.S. Embassy and key military bases. Because the soil samples were from Japan and might contain foreign microbes, they had to be processed, treated and analyzed under a special permit from the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The bioassay lab, managed by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, is part of a network of seven SRS facilities that includes a blast-resistant, concrete building that covers 80,000 square feet.
The labs typically analyze samples from programs within SRS but can be mobilized for national and global nuclear emergencies.