On 3 June 2011, my husband and I returned to Albuquerque after my visit to an advanced respiratory clinic in Denver (long story– that’s why I haven’t been writing here at ACW recently). We exited the airport only to be smothered by a wall of smoke. Our car was coated with ash, and we could see bits of it floating down in the dim light of the streetlights. It was from the Wallow Fire in Arizona, the biggest wildfire in Arizona history. We knew it was only a matter of time before the summer wildfires started here in New Mexico, and we weren’t mistaken. The Pachecho fire is raining ash on Santa Fe, and the Donaldson Fire is currently raging across at 96,745 acres in the southern part of the state.
But the worst fire — the biggest one in New Mexico history at 121,248 acres, the one that’s getting national media attention — is the Las Conchas fire, which is burning in the Santa Fe National Forest that surrounds Los Alamos, a.k.a. The Hill, the home of Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project was born. It is spreading toward Santa Clara Pueblo, and has been described as “a very complex fire… hard to control”. The cause was a tree falling on a power line.
Past Experience Counts
If It Bleeds It Could Possibly Be Radioactive, It Leads
There are several reasons I wanted to write a piece about the fire. One has to do with how, despite the size of the fire, Los Alamos citizens handled the evacuation with remarkable efficiency (and are, in fact, returning home tomorrow, with LANL opening on Wednesday). Also, LANL itself was not damaged, partially because of previous experience with wildfires.
One of the other reasons I wrote this post was, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, to offer a “tip of the hat, wag of the finger” to the media, several bloggers, and their sources. Some either deliberately or unintentionally misunderstood how the labs handle wildfires, simply because they neglected to contact the right sources. Others preferred to turn to drama and half-truths in order to get their points across, when the real story was that climate change and the resulting catastrophic drought has made New Mexico a prime state for wildfires. We have seen the complete destruction of ecosystems, razing of forests, and deaths of countless wildlife living in the forest that is now a smoking wasteland. It was good to see that several journalists and bloggers definitely deserve a “tip of the hat” for asking the right questions and telling the story of the fire as it is, not as it could be.
Learning From The Past
The first reason I wanted to write this piece is that because of similar fires, e.g. the 48,000 acre Cerro Grande fire in the summer of 2000, the citizens of Los Alamos and nearby communities, are (unfortunately) used to the idea of evacuating their homes because of a wildfire. Not only that, but the fire destroyed or damaged over one hundred buildings at LANL itself, leading to extensive evaluation of firefighting, fireproofing, and overall fire prevention methods at LANL, with the hopes that were there to be a similar wildfire, the laboratory would remain safe.
Whether or not you already know this, it’s worth pointing out that as with any chemistry research facility, LANL laboratories contain any number of substances that may or may not be flammable; however, if they do catch on fire, there is the potential for the release of hazardous by-products. We owe a definite “tip of the hat” to local reporters who, instead of emphasizing the horrors of a fire in Technical Area 21 (a radioactive waste disposal area at LANL), asked what sort of fire protection the area has. Reporters Gadi Schwartz and Charlie Pabst discovered that during the remediation process, certain precautions have been taken:
The federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years cleaning up the low-level radioactive waste, demolishing buildings and digging up things like radiation suits that were buried in the dirt above Los Alamos Canyon.
Metal buildings protect dig sites, and now with the threat of fire, crews have gone in and covered any exposed materials inside.
De Sousa said, “Wherever there was any hazardous waste showing we covered that up with an additional two feet of dirt, so that even if a fire was able to get in there, it would stop at the dirt. Nothing would burn and nothing would be released in the atmosphere.”
In addition to dirt, the buildings are set up to spew a firefighting foam.
This story is solid piece of reporting, providing details on how the labs are prepared for a fire.
Alarm, Fear, and Panic
Imagine you’ve just been told that you must evacuate your home because a wildfire is burning out of control, and you are no longer safe there. Imagine that you live in a nearby community (or even one several hundred miles away), and haven’t had to evacuate, but are concerned about the general effects of the fire.
The very last thing you need to read in internet updates is a rumor that fires have started within the LANL boundaries, that flames are advancing toward a nuclear waste storage facility, and the possible consequences if such a facility were to catch on fire. Sure, it’s all speculation, but what if?
Speculation like this is interesting only in non-emergency situations. It’s irresponsible, unsympathetic, and possibly dangerous otherwise — well worth a wag of the finger.
What am I talking about? Well, several things.
First of all, here is a photo of Area G at LANL. Note the distance between the smoke from a smallish fire and Area G.
Area G is where low-level waste is stored. It is also where transuranic, or TRU waste is stored. I recommend that you read the more complex definitions of these types of waste in this CRS document when you have time.
Anyway, a few days after the fire had really gotten going, several articles appeared quoting members of government watchdog and activist groups. These groups play important roles in keeping various government departments on their toes, but quotes like the following about Area G were neither appropriate nor warranted when the danger to the area was minimal at most. From the Associated Press:
Nuclear watchdogs fear that it will reach as many as 30,000, 55-gallon drums.
“The concern is that these drums will get so hot that they’ll burst. That would put this toxic material into the plume. It’s a concern for everybody,” said Joni Arends, executive director of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety.
And from Time magazine, we have an interview with Peter Stockton from the Project on Government Oversight. Again, they play an important role as a watchdog organization, but the interview was badly timed, especially when Area G (within TA-54) has a series of fire-protection mechanisms. This was simply not the right time to discuss hypotheticals, as interesting as they may be:
There is concern about a radioactive smoke plume forming if the wildfire reacts with LANL’s hazardous materials. What is the risk of that happening?
TA-54 contains 20,000-30,000 drums of waste, but just because it’s low-level waste doesn’t mean anything. If that becomes airborne, and just a speck of plutonium gets into your lungs, you’re going to end up with cancer down the road. It’s the most toxic substance known to man. It would be very nasty if those drums blew apart, and the wind carried them downwind.
Note: the only part of LANL that caught on fire was Technical Area 49, or TA-49, and it was extinguished within an hour. Click here.
Panic, Fear Unwarranted
Here’s where I’m going to give a lot of hat tips to bloggers as well as journalists.
Regarding the barrels in Area G, former LANL chemist and Project Leader Cheryl Rofer asked around. Here‘s what she found out:
Yesterday I talked to someone who has actually repacked some of the drums and has dealt with the paperwork. I learned some things I didn’t know.
The drums are not just any old things from Joe’s junkyard, but are manufactured to a list of specifications, including the fit of the covers and closures. Each one has a hepa (high efficiency particulate air) filter so that air can move into and out of it with changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure without carrying waste materials out.
There are no mysterious sludges and uncontrolled chemicals in the drums.
The fabric buildings have fire suppression systems. I realized, some time after yesterday’s conversation, that this must be the foam that was mentioned in a few accounts of the drums…
She also makes a very good point: that the lab needs to be more open if it doesn’t want paranoid rumors floating about:
I’m wondering why the Lab didn’t say all these things, perhaps issue a fact sheet, in response to media inquiries. Early Lab responses on the subject were a refusal to comment. But this has long been the way the Los Alamos National Laboratory has handled such things.
The blog at the journal Science also makes an excellent point: (bold emphasis mine)
While the edge of the fire is only a few dozen meters from the edge of the lab’s property, it is roughly 13 km from the most sensitive location, the so-called “Area G.” That site is a 63-acre storage facility where thousands of drums of nuclear waste sit, many of which are outdoors.
But between the fire and that site is the remnants of a forest that was largely burned during a horrific 2000 fire on lab property. That fire burned “90%” of the flammable material from the west side of the lab, says Los Alamos retiree Charles Mansfield, who worked as a physicist at the lab for 17 years and also as a forest firefighter, a so-called smokejumper, for 11 years. Mansfield says he’s “not very concerned” about the fire reaching spreading east to Area G.
And, as we see, the fire didn’t spread.
Finally, the ever-reliable John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal has been writing article after article; it’s worth checking them all out, but one of them said it all, to the people who insisted that we’d all have lungs full of plutonium by now:
The smoke is bad news — take it from someone who’s been affected by it all the way down here in Albuquerque. But it’s not radioactive, at least; earlier tests were confirmed by more recent tests, in fact.
Caution Is The Name Of The Game, Not Drama
The fact that LANL didn’t suffer any damage and (thus far) the fire hasn’t caused any human deaths doesn’t mean everything is okay, and that everything will be just dandy in the future. In fact, the opposite is true; the Las Conchas fire continues to burn, and is endangering wildlife, watersheds, and destroying forests as we speak. The United States desert southwest has been in a catastrophic drought for a long time now (data and map here). John Fleck’s piece in today’s Albuquerque Journal gets right to the point:
The factors that set up trouble in the Southwest’s forests are complex – a warming climate and forest management practices over the 20th century that allowed a terrifying buildup of fuel. There was simply too much wood and plant material for the ecosystem to support, said Allen, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has been studying the relationship between forest, fire and climate in the Jemez Mountains for 25 years. Something had to give.
That set the stage. Epic drought lit the match.
There are other fires burning around New Mexico; conditions were prime, and it’s never good when there are facilities that might be in the path of a fire and can add to the danger of the final product. LANL was lucky, as well as prepared.
But when we’re talking about risk, especially in the nuclear world, people still bring up the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock”. In recent years, the Clock has been set to include climate change as part of the overall threat to our world. The conditions leading to the Las Conchas fire were undoubtedly influenced by our warming climate.
The fact that the fire got close enough to LANL, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, to make everyone nervous, plus the fact that this fire was partly caused by one of the Doomsday Clock factors, should not be lost on anyone. It’s a collision of events, and we should keep it at the forefront of our thoughts. Caution. Use caution with these things we build at LANL, and use caution when handling the Earth around it.
Caution, not panic or fear, are the operative words.