CBRN / HazMat Training Blog

Operation Tomodachi: CBRN Interoperability and Joint Training

Written by Steven Pike on 04 April 2024


The US response to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster provided valuable lessons for the US military and its allies in creating a radiological detection and analysis capability that can offer real-time shared situational awareness.  

Japan, 2011 

In 2011, an undersea earthquake, the largest ever recorded in Japan, struck the country’s eastern seaboard causing not only widespread damage but triggering a powerful tsunami that at the peak of its power, reached a height of 40 metres and travelled at a colossal 700 KPH. Among the severely damaged facilities was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, whose sea defences were overwhelmed  and subsequently flooded, placing it in a dangerous condition. The nuclear reactors posed a major radiological threat to hundreds of thousands of civilians, as well as to the many rescue workers attempting to support the response and recovery efforts after the tsunami and earthquake

Operation Tomodachi

The extensive U.S. military presence in Japan was quickly mobilised to assist the Japanese government and its people in recovering from the disaster. The powerful joint force would use its significant maritime, air and logistic capabilities to conduct rescue and relief operations across the devastated regions. This was a complex task, and the U.S. relief efforts necessitated the coordinated actions of all armed services branches under a joint initiative named Operation Tomodachi.

Fukushima Daiichi Meltdown 

The crisis at Fukushima, with the threat of widespread radiological contamination, posed a significant challenge to the relief operations. Due to the earthquake and tsunami damage, including the loss of power, plant operators struggled to cool the reactors. This led to the meltdown of three reactors, resulting in the release of radioactive materials into the environment and the evacuation of thousands of residents. The movement of contaminated seawater, influenced by winds and currents amidst the widespread destruction of infrastructure, posed a considerable challenge for radiological assessment.

A detection and analysis phase was imperative to evaluate radiological exposure and threats before any cleanup and recovery efforts could commence. This phase required not only a significant number of specialist teams but also necessitated that data collection be quantified and standardised, ensuring that it was presented in a unified format. This would enable decision-makers to make informed high-level responses to the disaster.

The Operational Problem 

The separate branches of the U.S. Military are considerably large and, in terms of equipment and procurement, can often create their own operational climate. The Joint Task Force (JTF) conducting Operation Tomodachi deployed various teams from different services, each operating distinct suites of radiological detection equipment. This sometimes led to inconsistent operational performance and data presentation, lacking a common standard across the force.

This interoperability shortfall diminished the shared situational awareness among responding agencies. This caused early confusion and misunderstanding during the decision-making process as Japanese and US authorities wrestled with conducting evacuations and allocating resources in response to the operational realities they faced. Evacuation planning was compromised, forcing many to evacuate multiple times to newly designated safe zones.

The US Response 

At the Task Force level, the US radiological response was focused on deploying a small team from the Joint Task Force Civil Response (JTF-CS) command. This eight-person team served as the core of the DoD’s analysis and planning cell for radiation-related information, guidance, and advice, monitoring U.S. and Japanese radiation readings in the Japanese theatre, while advising senior Japanese and U.S. officials. Additional ad-hoc teams were formed and dispatched to provide localised radiological response guidance to lower-level commands.

Through hard work, rapid organisation, and innovation, accurate radiological surveys and analysis to minimise the risk to life and long-term injury were made possible. But it was not a masterpiece of command and control, and the lack of equipment interoperability and reporting standards—both between U.S. and Japanese responders and within U.S. forces—highlighted significant concerns for DoD CBRN policymakers.

Developing Future Capability 

Out of the lessons learned from Fukushima and Operation Tomodachi was the necessity for interoperability in CBRN detection and analysis. A project was initiated to transcend separate service procurements, leading to the development of a common Radiological Detection System (RDS) deployable across the US Armed Forces' four service branches. This system would be produced at scale and replace older detection systems such as the AN/VDR-2, AN/PDR-77 and ADM300A Radiac Sets.

The RDS system was accepted for service in 2020 and is currently being rolled out across the U.S. military. It incorporates far simpler user functionality allowing it to be used by non-CBRN specialist troops allowing field commanders a much-improved ability to conduct detection and survey operations.

D-tect Systems Radiological Detection System (RDS) 

D-tect Systems have provided a universal RDS which has at its heart a hand-held base unit capable of detecting Beta and Gamma radiation. The user-centric lightweight and hand-held base unit acts as a common interface for various probes including Alpha/Beta contamination monitoring, Neutron and FIDLER probes, each of which can be interchanged easily for specialised radiation detection applications.

This RDS capability will have a transformative effect on radiological survey operations. Operators can now swiftly carry out surveys to identify radiation sources, intensities, and hotspots. Additionally, with geolocation and GPS capabilities, contamination data can be relayed in real-time to higher headquarters, ensuring up-to-date and accurate situational awareness.

Managing the Training Gap 

While the D-tect Systems RDS sets a new standard in conducting radiological detection and survey like any system, user familiarity and training are crucial to its success. This is even more true given the RDS system's expected deployment beyond specialist CBRN units.

To complement the D-tect Systems RDS, Argon Electronics, with the full support of D-tect Systems, have produced the RDS-SIM training simulator, which accurately emulates the operational system's human interface and functionality. This capability allows operators to train effectively without using ionizing radiological sources, offering a level of training realism and agility only achieved with simulation support. The simulation capability will include a full range or simulation probes and maintain compatibility will all other Argon radiological simulators, including PlumeSIM.

Closing the Chapter 

The Fukushima earthquake and nuclear meltdown were catastrophic events. While such disasters offer little comfort, they do demonstrate humanity's resilience and determination to coexist with nature's formidable forces safely. Understanding and managing nuclear energy requires technology and training that goes beyond specialist capability. The US DoD's initiative in creating an RDS that delivers standardized data and common functionality across the joint force marks progress towards making future nuclear incidents more manageable. The RDS's development is being closely monitored by other nations, which are now reassessing their radiological operational and training capabilities.

*Featured image source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin B. Gray

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Topics: CBRN Training

Steven Pike

Written by Steven Pike

Steven Pike is the Founder and Managing Director of Argon Electronics (UK) Ltd. A graduate of the University of Hertfordshire, Steven has been awarded a number of international patents relating to the field of hazardous material training systems and technology.