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Canada's Nuclear Superheroes

In the event of an emergency, we often think of the police, firefighters and paramedics as the first line of protection. And while these first responders play a key role, when it comes to nuclear emergencies, there are some other real-life heroes that also keep us safe.

On March 11, 2011, an undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 hit the Pacific coast of Japan, triggering powerful tsunami waves. The tsunami caused nuclear accidents at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. On August 9, 2012, a small Japanese fishing vessel was found on Spring Island, just off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, BC. That Japanese vessel was lost from the Fukushima territory during the 2011 tsunami, and therefore generated a lot of interest from agencies in BC, as well as federal agencies in Canada and the United States.

On September 9, 2012, a field team from Health Canada's Radiation Protection Bureau set out to Spring Island to take radiation measurements on the fishing vessel. Following their expedition, they published a technical report confirming that there were no detectable traces of radiation on the vessel or the adjacent shoreline.

So who are these nuclear superheroes ready to take action and chase radiation? Meet the Radiation Protection Bureau Field Team, one of Health Canada's emergency response teams for nuclear emergencies. We call them Canada's Nuclear Superheroes!

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Image 1: The Radiation Protection Bureau Field Team for radiological / nuclear emergencies gears up for another day on the job! From left: Matthew Rodrigues, John Rollings, Laura Chaloner, Michael Jones, Marc-Olivier Boudreau, Claude Bouchard, Stan Marciniak.

Health Canada is responsible for the Federal Nuclear Emergency Plan (FNEP), which lays out how the Government of Canada analyzes and addresses the health and environmental impacts resulting from a nuclear or radiological incident in Canada or abroad. The Government maintains a 24/7 state of readiness, meaning that Health Canada and its FNEP partners are constantly monitoring for nuclear events and are prepared to coordinate the appropriate federal technical response, at any moment.

When a notification of a possible nuclear event is received, a Technical Assessment Group (TAG) is prepared to assess the impact of the specific event on health, food and the environment. The TAG has the knowledge, equipment and experience to handle many different radiological and nuclear scenarios.

The Radiation Protection Bureau Field Team supports the work of the TAG. "We have material and gear dedicated to nuclear emergency response," explains Claude Bouchard, Section Head, Coordination and Operations Preparedness, in the Nuclear Emergency Preparedness and Response Division. The team uses a variety of equipment to perform ground-based radiation surveys, to carry out environmental monitoring and sample collection, and to support technical analyses and risk assessments. They protect themselves from contamination by wearing special gear (including protective suits, face masks and gloves) while working in the field.

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Image 2: Members of the Radiation Protection Bureau Field Team wear protective gear while in the field to keep from being exposed to radiation or nuclear.

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Image 3: This piece of equipment, called a High Purity Germanium detector (HPGe), is used for gamma spectrometry (testing radiation on small samples). The sample is placed inside the detector and the data appear on the computer screen.

Every year, the team completes two major exercises that simulate a response to a nuclear event, to test their response protocols and ensure that team members understand their roles. The most recent exercise was completed in Ottawa in May 2016 and was based on a scenario involving the detonation of a Radiological Dispersal Device, commonly known as a "dirty bomb." During the exercise, the participants were required to identify the areas of contamination and the radioactive material, as well as develop solutions to control the contamination.

These drill exercises can last just a few hours, or can be extended to several days. No matter what, the team is always prepared with a complete stash of food, water and backup cellular phones.

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Image 4: A mobile lab testing for radiation at the May 2016 field exercise in Ottawa

The team also helps coordinate nuclear incident preparedness and response efforts in advance of major sporting events and other large-scale public events. The team was involved in safety precautions for the Pan Am Games in 2015, as well as the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and G8/G20 Summit.

Following the 2011 nuclear emergency at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant in Japan, a lot of work was done by many departments to improve our level of emergency preparedness. The Radiation Protection Bureau Field Team was involved in this effort and, in the fall of 2015, members of the team participated in an international workshop at the Fukushima disaster site to test and validate Health Canada's standard operating procedure for rapidly measuring radiation levels during a nuclear emergency.

Effective nuclear emergency response requires close collaboration and teamwork with partners from across many organizations and jurisdictions. With these nuclear superheroes around, it's safe to say we're in good hands!

For more information:

Health Concerns - Emergencies and Disasters

Federal Nuclear Emergency Plan

Nuclear Emergency Preparedness

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