Nuclear wildfires

Robert Alvarez

The recent wildfires at Department of Energy nuclear sites are among the most serious nuclear emergencies in the United States. In May, the Cerro Grande fire destroyed nearly 48,000 acres on and around the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The Hanford wildfire in Washington state raged over 192,000 acres in late June. In late July, a wildfire cut a swath about 12 miles long and four miles wide at the DOE's Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, coming close to large amounts of stored nuclear wastes and forcing the evacuation of 1,800 workers.

Nuclear-site wildfires burn off protective layers of soil and vegetation, causing radioactive materials to be carried over great distances. Fires can disrupt safety systems at nuclear facilities, leading to loss of power and ventilation. They can ignite waste areas containing solvents, hydrogen and flammable forms of nuclear materials. And these wildfires are increasing. So far, 6.4 million acres have burned this season -- 3.5 million acres above the 10-year national average. According to the Forest Service, there is an acute shortage of resources to fight such fires.

Destruction of vegetation creates flooding risks and radioactive and hazardous-waste runs off into water supplies. At Los Alamos, the Cerro Grande fire denuded the mountains surrounding the 43-square-mile mesas containing the lab and several watersheds that feed into the Rio Grande. It affected more than 600 radioactive and hazardous dumpsites and several contaminated canyons running through the lab property, where there have been decades of effluent disposal. The Clinton Administration is scrambling to build a 70-foot dam at Los Alamos to prevent flash floods from washing through a heavily contaminated reactor and into the community of White Rock, N.M. Runoff and floods could carry about 300,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil, the equivalent of a football field 300 feet high, into the largest freshwater artery in the state. Higher-than-average levels of plutonium and other contaminants are already showing up in the river. Because of the magnitude of deforestation, these dangers will persist at Los Alamos for many years.

The untold story of the Cerro Grande fire is that it could have been much worse had it not been for local activists. In 1998, after the DOE issued a draft Environmental Impact Statement for Los Alamos, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and others criticized the DOE's failure to consider the impact of wildfires on the site. To their credit, the DOE and the laboratory performed a wildfire risk analysis and reduced dry vegetation around Area G, which contains a large amount of nuclear waste. Had they not done this, the fire would have reached barrels of plutonium waste, causing them to burst and spread deadly contamination.

Some of the DOE's most dangerous nuclear wastes remain outside and unprotected. The Hanford fire hit the "B/C" waste disposal trenches, which probably contain more radioactivity than the entire contaminant inventory at Los Alamos. Airborne plutonium concentrations carried to the nearby cities of Pasco and Richland were 1,000 times above normal background radiation levels.

The fire also came close to hitting a storage area with a large number of barrels containing flammable uranium waste chips. According to the notes of an internal meeting at Hanford in April, 1998, a single drum, once it ignites, would send flames as high as 30 feet. The DOE didn't move the barrels to a safer place because it wanted to avoid state environmental controls.

The DOE is ill prepared to deal with wildfires at its numerous facilities. Over the past 10 years, several major nuclear weapons sites have been closed, leaving large amounts of unstable nuclear materials in deteriorating facilities -- some dating back to World War II. This problem has been put on the back burner, because it's very expensive to solve and because it competes for funds with nuclear weapons activities and environmental compliance agreements with states and the Environmental Protection Agency. A major portion of the 189 tons of highly enriched uranium at the Oak Ridge Y-12 weapons plant in Tennessee is combustible and is stored in old wooden buildings. If the uranium metal catches fire, using water will generate hydrogen, which could be like adding gasoline to the blaze.

Monitoring systems at DOE sites are inadequate. During the Los Alamos fire, the DOE failed to deploy readily available aircraft to measure contaminants in the smoke and to perform remote sensing to look for hot spots. Firefighters are not afforded the same protections as radiation workers; recently 100 of them stormed off the Los Alamos site because of health and safety concerns.

Nuclear explosives in wooden buildings, disruption of unprotected and heavily contaminated areas and the subsequent migration of contaminants into water supplies have not been high government priorities. The wildfires at Los Alamos, Hanford and the Idaho lab should be a wake-up call to Washington to put these concerns on the DOE's short list right away. We also owe activists near DOE sites a debt of thanks.

Robert Alvarez is a former senior policy adviser to the Secretary of Energy. This commentary first appeared in The Nation.