URGENT CARGO: Flight Leaves Vandengerg AFB with Supplies to Cool Japanese Nuclear Reactors
March 18, 2011, Nora K. Wallace, [Santa Barbara] News-Press Staff Writer
An urgent shipment of boric acid -- a key ingredient used to help cool down nuclear reactors -- left Vandenberg Air Force Base Thursday afternoon on its way to aid Japan's compromised nuclear facility.
Some 34,000 pounds -- or 17 tons -- of the material was trucked from Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County to Vandenberg, where it was loaded onto pallets and departed aboard a C-17 transport airplane around 4:45 p.m. One shipment of 18,000 pounds of boric acid arrived Wednesday night and was prepared for loading onto the massive aircraft, which arrived at Vandenberg at 11 a.m. Thursday. In the early afternoon, another 16,000 pounds arrived and was readied for delivery. By late afternoon, the C-17 was in the air with its crew of seven, winging its way to Japan in a 13-hour flight. Boric acid contains boron, which can be used to slow down fission reactions in nuclear reactors.
The shipment was one of several worldwide as numerous nations respond to the earthquake-induced crisis at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.The French Foreign Ministry announced it was sending 100 tons of boric acid, as well as 10,000 protective suits, 20,000 pairs of gloves and 3,000 masks. South Korea said it would send more than 56 tons of boric acid.
Last week's 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami knocked out power and destroyed backup generators needed for the reactors' cooling systems. Four of the plant's six reactors have had fires, explosions, damage to the structures housing reactor cores, partial meltdowns or rising temperatures in the pools used to store spent nuclear fuel.
Emergency workers in Japan are trying to regain control of the overheated nuclear complex, and on Thursday dropped water from helicopters and by other methods in attempts to cool the nuclear fuel rods.
Kory Raftery , a spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric that operates Diablo Canyon, said the company decided the boric acid delivery was "obviously the right thing to do," given the gravity of the situation. "This is pretty important," said Mr. Raftery. "Before we decided to do that, we ran calculations and did testing to ensure we had ample boric acid onsite and extra." Mr. Raftery said he did not know how the shipment from Diablo to Japan came about, and could not say how much boric acid Diablo has on hand.
The boric acid shipment, he said, "is the one thing we could do" during the crisis."Our hearts and prayers go out to the people in Japan. We feel terrible." The company has set up a fund to allow its employees to donate aid to Japan, he added. On Vandenberg's almost two-mile-long runway Thursday, Capt. Evan Oppedal stood near his C-17 from McChord Air Force Base outside of Tacoma, Wash., waiting for the loading. His crew from the 10th Airlift Squadron, he said, has been on alert, waiting and anticipating some type of humanitarian flight would occur.
The delivery has been routed to keep the crew outside of any potential radioactive danger zone, Capt. Oppedal said.
The plane will land at Yokota Air Base, about a an hour away from Tokyo. "We deliver supplies all over the world," Capt. Oppedal said. "It's not every day we get out there and can immediately help people in need. It's definitely fulfilling." Normally, his aircraft might be transporting tanks or various humanitarian supplies to places such as Haiti after its earthquake, or Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.
|Above, a C-17 military aircraft is shown before taking|
off from Vandenberg Air Force Base
bound for Japan with a supply of boric acid
intended to help cool the nation's compromised
nuclear reactors. The plane is piloted
by Air Force Capt. Evan Oppedal , shown below.
This is his first overseas delivery, Capt. Oppedal said.
A husband and father of a 9-month-old child, Capt. Oppedal said he knows his family is concerned, but that he has "taken the right precautions" to ensure he is safe.
He did not know how long he and the crew will be in Japan.
Maj. Rich Apple, commander of Vandenberg's Logistics Readiness Squadron, said about 15 people helped prepare the first shipment Wednesday night. It was "a team effort," he said. Such efforts are undertaken every day, all over the world, by members of the "world's greatest air force," Maj. Apple said. "It's very gratifying," he said. Capt. Jimmy West, Vandenberg's airfield operations flight commander, said the base had only a few hours notice to get the team together. "Even though we're a Space Command base, we have the second largest runway in the Department of Defense," Capt. West said. "When we're called to support, we're proud to do that."
Copyright Santa Barbara News Press 2011 - all rights reserved.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.