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Not a Fire Drill

Wildfire Safety Policy at an Iconic Nuclear Weapons Research Facility

Elaine Sedenberg takes an in-depth look at the implementation of wildfire safety policies at Los Alamos National Laboratory, home of the atomic bomb.

Smoke from the Las Conchas fire fills the sky near the Los Alamos Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Tuesday, June 28, 2011. A vicious wildfire spread through the mountains above the northern New Mexico town on Tuesday, driving thousands of people from their homes as officials at the government nuclear laboratory tried to dispel concerns about the safety of sensitive materials. (AP/Jae C. Hong)
Smoke from the Las Conchas fire fills the sky near the Los Alamos Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Tuesday, June 28, 2011. A vicious wildfire spread through the mountains above the northern New Mexico town on Tuesday, driving thousands of people from their homes as officials at the government nuclear laboratory tried to dispel concerns about the safety of sensitive materials. (AP/Jae C. Hong)

While wildfires burned bright on the New Mexico horizon, Los Alamos National Laboratory, or LANL, Director Charles McMillan addressed an anxious public about the encroaching Las Conchas wildfire on the lab’s notorious nuclear facilities. “We have a strong team protecting a national treasure,” he said Tuesday, as firefighters worked frantically to protect the lab—and the radioactive nuclear material it houses—from imminent danger.

Los Alamos is more than a memory of the scientific triumph of the Manhattan Project and the dawn of the nuclear age. The national lab is a living testament to the American research infrastructure established following World War II and part of a vital network of national labs responsible for maintaining American competitiveness. The current fires are putting long-debated LANL emergency procedures to the test with precious equipment, the environment, and public health at risk.

Vital to science, vital to the economy

When Los Alamos was established in 1943 as “site Y” of the Manhattan Project, the lab had a single purpose: to design and build an atomic bomb. Twenty months later, the team of scientists had successfully weaponized the atom. Today, LANL hosts a broad national security research portfolio and features prominent public-private partnerships. More than half of the annual budget goes to weapons programs and part of the sprawling 36 DOE-owned square miles stores hazardous waste. The lab employs more than 11,000 individuals with diverse educational backgrounds (22 percent Ph.Ds, 28 percent without a university degree). LANL is as vital to New Mexico’s economy as it is to national scientific interests.

Big science, big risk

With big science comes big risk. Any laboratory that works with nuclear material faces constant safety, security, and natural hazards, so daily attentiveness must be unwavering. As the fires come closer to Los Alamos’s walls, they threaten not only the radioactive nuclear material stored inside but also threaten to release so-called “legacy radiation” stored in the surrounding trees and soil.

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility served as a graphic reminder that despite modern technology, no facility is ever invincible at the hands of Mother Nature—particularly in a changing climate. Following the disaster in Japan, Science Progress posted a map highlighting the potential risks of water-related disasters on American nuclear facilities. Two nuclear facilities in Nebraska are currently battling floods due to anticipated rising levels of the Missouri River attributed to heavy spring rains and melting Rocky Mountain snowpacks. One of the key differences between Fukushima and the Fort Calhoun facility: The slow nature of the rising floodwaters gave the plant weeks to prepare.

Safety and security threats at a nuclear facility are plentiful and reach far beyond natural disasters. The most recent round of cyber attacks serves as yet another reminder that national security protection comes not only in the form of physical security but in constant digital vigilance.

Nuclear technology, whether for research or power generation, inherently comes with risks. It is undeniably important to not only continually assess preparedness but to take away clear messages from close calls around the world and implement improved standards and procedures.

Failed assessments and close calls

The current Las Conchas is not the first wildfire to compromise LANL safety. In May 2000 the Cerro Grande fire destroyed more than 100 lab buildings and burned 7,700 acres of the lab’s property, causing more than $130 million in damages and prompting the Department of Energy to release a wildland fire safety report. In 2001 the DOE followed this up with the issuance of “Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Implementing Actions.”

Despite recommendations and policies set in place by DOE, a March 2007 audit revealed incomplete updates and weak links in several national labs—including Los Alamos. The report stated that lab contractors had not prioritized mitigation efforts and either omitted or did not adequately consider a number of specifications in federal policy. “Without improvements in these areas, the three sites remain at a higher than necessary risk of damage to property and facilities – and possible injury of employees and members of the public – from wildfires.” The report went on to state “despite specific experience with the serious consequences associated with wildland fires, Los Alamos National Laboratory had not completed all necessary preparedness and fire mitigation activities.”

A DOE follow-up audit in June 2009 showed that Los Alamos National Security LLC, the lab management and operation contractor since 2006, had still not resolved 59 percent of the deficiencies identified in early 2006. The audit once again pointed out “there are increased risks associated with fire-related events, such as the release of hazardous or radiological material. If such an event were to occur, not only would the safety and health of employees and the public be impacted but the environment could be damaged as well.” An additional inspection in September 2009 identified more fire vulnerabilities and offered more safety recommendations.

Putting the plans to the test

After the release of the June 2009 audit, LANL’s Fire Protection Division Leader Jim Streit released a statement that acknowledged weaknesses and pointed out recent changes to improve the lab’s fire protection program.

Some of the improvements to LANL’s fire prevention efforts are apparent from the website. Control burns take place under safe conditions and the Los Alamos County Fire Department has a published fire plan for the area. But the wildfires raging in Los Alamos this week will put these new safety procedures to the test.

LANL released a statement on Tuesday in response to mounting concerns about the encroaching wildfire, citing their multiyear fire safety program since the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire and numerous investments into firefighting infrastructure and plans. Kevin Smith, Los Alamos site office manager, said “the lab and our interagency partners have applied the lessons learned from Cerro Grande. The improvements between then and now are substantial and they are making a difference in this fire.”

A DOE report from January 2011, however, pointed out breakdowns in compliance verification, citing only “incremental progress toward completing required hazard planning.” The report states that Los Alamos and Argonne National Labs were the only sites that had formal policies and procedures involving tracking and sharing lessons learned from previous event. But the report also found that the labs had failed to demonstrate that significant hazards had been identified and response plans were adequately developed due to missing paperwork.

Not a fire drill

So what do all of these audits and inspections between Los Alamos and DOE mean? At a fundamental level it means that fire safety and risk from natural wildfires has been in the dialogue for many years. It also means that consistent attention has been paid to fire hazards, even if the implementation of plans has been slow to materialize. But will all the efforts be enough against the unpredictable nature of this week’s Las Conchas Fire?

Unfortunately, this isn’t a fire drill for Los Alamos. The blaze has grown to more than 61,000 acres and burned a remote part of the property known as Technical Area 49—an area used in the 1960s for underground tests using high explosives and radioactive material. The fire on the property was quickly contained and put out with no contamination risk.

Threats from this fire will be a test of emergency procedures and if carried out successfully will be a testament to an ability to learn from and respond to warnings from previous disasters. So far, all reports coming from lab officials have been confident. Los Alamos County Fire officials and McMillan have stated that the transuranic waste located on the property is not expected to be reached by the flames. Even if the fire reached the contamination barrels, officials have said the waste could be protected using a foam spray. Additionally, lab spokesperson Kevin Roark has said that environmentalist specialists are on scene monitoring the air quality for radioactivity and particulates.

Local fire officials are also now using preventative burns to starve out the growing wildfire before it can get close enough to cause further damage. These “back burns” come with some risk of getting out of control themselves, but as of Thursday appear to have been effective. These burns can be seen on a YouTube video posted by the laboratory and continual updates from LANL can be found here. Perhaps this week’s Las Conchas fire will be a story of past lessons learned, rather than a lesson for the future.

Elaine Sedenberg is a science policy contractor at the Center for American Progress.

This article is cross-posted at Science Progress.

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