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Sites with radioactive material more vulnerable as climate change worsens

Increasingly common fires, droughts and floods all threaten the sensitive sites
A general view shows an entrance to the Pantex Plant, Friday, March 1, 2024, in Panhandle, Texas. The plant was briefly shut down during the early part of the Smokehouse Creek Fire on Tuesday, Feb. 27. Climate change increasingly threatens research laboratories, weapons sites and power plants across the nation that handle or are contaminated with radioactive material or perform critical energy and defense research. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Climate change increasingly threatens some of the nation’s most sensitive sites, including research laboratories, military facilities and power plants with radioactive material.

Extreme heat and drought, longer fire seasons with larger, more intense blazes and supercharged rainstorms that can lead to catastrophic flooding are forcing a reckoning that environmentalists and experts say is long overdue.

Many sites are contaminated or warehouse decades of radioactive waste, while some perform critical energy and defense research and manufacturing that could be crippled by increasingly unpredictable extreme weather.

Among them: The 40-square-mile Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where a 2000 wildfire burned to within a half mile (0.8 kilometers) of a radioactive waste site. The Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Southern California, where a 2018 wildfire burned 80% of the site, narrowly missing an area contaminated by a 1959 partial nuclear meltdown. And the plutonium-contaminated Hanford nuclear site in Washington, where the U.S. manufactured atomic bombs.

In February, wildfires came within 3 miles (5 kilometers) of the Pantex Plant in Texas, which assembles and disassembles nuclear weapons and stores thousands of plutonium pits — hollow spheres that trigger nuclear warheads and bombs.

Fire didn’t reach the site, and officials said plutonium pits — in fire-resistant drums and shelters — likely would not have been affected. But the size and speed of the fires, urgent efforts to dig firebreaks and the decision to send workers home underscore what’s at stake.

The Texas fire season often starts in February, but farther west it has yet to ramp up.

“I think we’re still early in recognizing climate change and … how to deal with these extreme weather events,” said Paul Walker, program director at Green Cross International and a former House Armed Services Committee staffer. “What might have been safe 25 years ago probably is no longer safe.”

That realization has begun to change how the government addresses threats.

The Department of Energy in 2022 required sites to assess climate risks to “mission-critical functions and operations,” and plan for them. It cited wildfires at two national laboratories and a 2021 freeze that damaged “critical facilities” at Pantex.

Yet the agency does not consider future climate risks when authorizing new sites or projects, or in periodic environmental assessments. It only considers how sites themselves might affect climate change, which critics call short-sighted and potentially dangerous.

Likewise, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers only historical climate data in licensing decisions and nuclear plant oversight, according to a General Accounting Office study in April that recommended NRC “fully consider potential climate change effects.” The GAO found that 60 of 75 U.S. plants were in areas with high flood hazard and 16 with high wildfire potential.

“We’re acting like … (what’s) happening now is what we can expect to happen in 50 years,” said Caroline Reiser, a climate and energy attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The reality of what our climate is doing has shifted dramatically, and we need to shift our planning.”

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s environmental safety and health division, which oversees active DOE sites, will develop “crucial” methodologies to address climate risks in permitting and site assessments, said John Weckerle, the division’s director of environmental regulatory affairs.

“We all know the climate is changing. Everybody’s thinking about, what effect are we having on the climate?” Weckerle said. “Now we need to flip that on its head and say, ‘OK … but what do we think is going to happen as a result of climate on a particular site?’”

Experts say risks vary. Most plutonium and other radioactive material is in concrete or steel structures or underground. And many sites are remote, where public risk likely would be minimal.

Still, potential threats have arisen.

In 2000, a wildfire burned one-third of the 580-square-mile (1,502-square-kilometer) Hanford site, which produced plutonium for the U.S. atomic weapons program and is considered the nation’s most radioactive place.

Air monitoring detected plutonium in nearby populated areas at levels higher than background, but only for one day at levels not considered hazardous, according to a Washington health department report.

The state said the plutonium likely was from surface soil blown by wind during and after the fire.

A 2018 fire in California started at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a former nuclear research and rocket-engine testing site, and burned within several hundred feet of contaminated buildings and soil, and near where a nuclear reactor core partially melted down 65 years ago.

The state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control muti-agency sampling found no off-site radioactive or other hazardous material from the fire. But an outside study found radioactive microparticles in ash beyond of the lab boundary.

The state ordered 18 buildings demolished, citing “substantial endangerment to people and the environment,” because future fires could release radioactive and hazardous substances.

It ordered cleanup of old burn pits contaminated with radioactive materials, fearing fire or floods could damage tarps covering them.

A 2000 wildfire burned 7,500 acres (3,035 hectares) at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, coming within a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) of more than 24,000 above-ground containers of mostly plutonium-contaminated waste.

Most containers have since been shipped to offsite storage. Remaining radioactive material — including from the Manhattan Project — now is underground or in containers beneath fire-retardant fabric-and-steel domes.

The lab’s fire preparedness includes thinning forests, said Rich Nieto, manager of its wildland fire program. “What used to be a three-month (fire) season, sometimes will be a six-month season,” he said.

Fire isn’t the only threat. Intense rainstorms can wash away contaminated sediment. Floods and extreme cold have forced the shutdown of several DOE sites in recent years.

In 2010, Pantex was inundated with rain that affected operations for almost a month and flooded a plutonium storage area. In 2021, it was shut down for a week because of extreme cold that officials said led to “freeze-related failures” at 10 nuclear facilities there.

Pantex has since adopted freeze-protection measures, upgraded fire and electrical systems and installed backup generators.

Other DOE sites are looking at their own needs, the nuclear security agency’s Weckerle said.

“We live in a time of increased risk,” he said. “That’s just the heart of it (and) … a lot of that does have to do with climate change.”

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The Associated Press receives support for nuclear security coverage from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Outrider Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Tammy Webber, The Associated Press