Special team's challenge: cleaning up nuclear incidents

When the Soviet's spy-in-the-sky satellite, Cosmos 1402, dribbled burning fragments over the Indian Ocean, the world was ready. The Sultanate of Oman told people to stay inside. Canada had a 50-member emergency team poised for action.

But it was the US Department of Energy's (DOE) nuclear emergency search team that was offered to any country needing help to clean up debris from the runaway satellite.

The American team's beginnings can be traced to an ordinary afternoon back in 1974.

James Cannon, then an Atomic Energy Commission employee in Washington, got word to pack a bag and rush to the airport. He wasn't allowed to tell his wife where he was going, or why.

Several hours later, he was in New York, joined by others familiar with the handling of radioactive materials. The group then took a bus to an upstate military base.

The reason for the rushed meeting: Boston had received a nuclear bomb threat that soon proved to be a hoax. The team was formally established in 1975.

''The whole science and technology of the things we do are better now than they were a decade ago,'' says Mr. Cannon, currently a spokesman for the DOE's defense program. Refinements in communications and radiation-sensing equipment, he says, together with increased use of computers, has made the task more efficient.

Preparations for the fall of Cosmos 1402, which broke apart as it plunged to earth over the Indian Ocean on Jan. 23, were coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It's the search team, however, that is charged with mopping up after serious nuclear-related accidents.

In the last seven years, the team has been involved in about 70 ''suspected nuclear incidents,'' most of which turned out to be false alarms.

Officials are tight-lipped about the equipment and tactics of the team. As one spokesman explained, ''It could jepordize our work against terrorists if our people were readily recognized.''

Members of the team - who range from atmospheric physicists to public information specialists - are drawn largely from government weapons laboratories in the far West.

But there are no people sitting around ''waiting for something to happen,'' says James Boyer, spokesman for DOE's Nevada operations office, where the emergency team assembled last weekend.

The size of the group varies from one incident to another. For example, when another Soviet nuclear-powered satellite fell in northwest Canada in 1978, about 200 team members were deployed in the cleanup operation over three months. Three Mile Island, by contrast, involved only 40 team members.

This past week, three C-141 cargo planes were loaded with special gear in Las Vegas, Nev. Aboard were such things as lead-lined containers for scooping up and stowing radioactive junk and equipment for pinpointing radioactive litter from the air.

Over the years, the scope of the team has expanded significantly. Rather than dealing only with emergencies, the team now also does routine checks of government nuclear installations, monitoring levels of radiation. The states, meanwhile, have established their own troubleshooters to take care of minor nuclear-related accidents.

''Years ago, we'd be called to bus or train stations where a box marked 'radioactive' was punctured . . . ,'' DOE's Cannon says. Usually, he adds, those turned out to be relatively harmless medical supplies.

As for Cosmos 1402, there's still more coming down from the sky. A much smaller chunk of satellite - the reactor carrying 100 pounds of uranium - is in orbit and expected to slip into the atmosphere in mid-February. But Pentagon officials say that piece should disintegrate in the searing heat of reentry.

It was the larger portion of the satellite, weighing about as much as three Ford LTDs, that had officials most concerned.

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