Pentagon Seeks High-Tech Nuke Radiation Defenses

A group of workers wearing protective suits and masks stand next to the No. 4 reactor at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. A group of workers wearing protective suits and masks stand next to the No. 4 reactor at Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO)'s tsunami-crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Issei Kato/AP

The Defense Department this week said it is looking for technologies to protect people against potentially deadly radiation near the site of a nuclear strike or other atomic disaster.

Proposals from government, academic, and private-sector sources could provide fodder for a possible government push to devise new means of "enhancing long-term survival in victims exposed to large doses of ionizing radiation," according to a solicitation issued last month by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The DARPA office said it is looking for both pre-exposure and post-exposure treatments to counter radiation's short-term effects.

Scientists have achieved a degree of progress in delaying death from acute radiation syndrome, but further studying how "the chronic effects of exposure play out within the body” could support development of new technologies to aid radiation victims, said Millie Donlon, a program manager with the DARPA Defense Sciences Office.

"There are many facets to this challenge and DARPA needs input from many fields," but a fruitful research endeavor could eliminate "at least some of [radiation's] destructive power," Donlon said in a press release issued this week.

One independent expert suggested the solicitation was an outgrowth of a prior agency finding that a protein-antibiotic combination could protect rodents exposed to high-level radioactivity.

"If you have radiation exposure and all the [digestive] bacteria in your gut die, then you're probably going to die," said Graham Peaslee, a chemistry and environmental science professor at Hope College in Holland, Mich. "They're basically trying to save your gut with this treatment, and it apparently works."

Any significant findings from related future research would likely be made public, as there is "nothing terribly classified about saving people," he said by telephone on Friday.

The Pentagon research arm indicated it also hopes to combat radiation's longer-term effects, which can include cancer. It welcomed "speculative concepts" to dramatically improve radiation treatments, and noted indications that caffeine and other antioxidants can "suppress lethality" and reduce damage to genetic material from radiation exposure.

"Understanding how these compounds act to reduce morbidity and mortality may pave the way to new, more effective therapies and protocols," the solicitation says.

The released information does not cite a deadline for submitting proposals or for standing up a potential scientific initiative. DARPA officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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