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Fighting Fire with Prevention

​EARLIER THIS YEAR, the Las Conchas wildfire became the largest fire in New Mexico’s history, burning more than 150,000 acres. The fire encroached onto the property of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), a nuclear weapons lab. LANL lost buildings to another major blaze more than a decade earlier, the Cerro Grande fire, which prompted a revision of forest fire mitigation techniques and led to increased fire safety funding and vast changes at LANL.

Security Management spoke to LANL’s Emergency Operations Director, Tony Stanford, about some of the changes the facility has made since the Cerro Grande fire.

One of the projects the laboratory undertook with federal funds was to decrease “fuel” around the laboratory and on the lab property. This means that the lab had to do “tree thinning” so that even if a forest fire began, it would not have as much material to burn on or near the LANL facilities.

According to Stanford, the lab spent tens of millions of dollars on tree thinning alone and gave much of the wood away. “That’s an ongoing program that we have here at the laboratory, to continue to try to manage our fuel loading, and try to keep that reduction going on,” Stanford explained.

The laboratory has also constructed a new Emergency Operations Center (EOC). “The old EOC was a very small room downstairs in one of our older facilities in the basement. And it only had two bathrooms in it and when you try to get 85 people in a room that big, it’s really tough to operate,” says Stanford.

The new EOC is a 35,000-square-foot building designed to hold about a hundred people for 14 days “off the grid.” It is self-sustainable with potable water capability, generators, and fuel components. The EOC is staffed 24 hours a day.

Additionally, resources have been dedicated to the local fire department, which is under contract to provide firefighting services to the laboratory. The department received about $25 million in new equipment, according to Stanford.

Possibly the most important development has been the establishment of the Emergency Operations Division, Stanford says. It holds about 20 emergency exercises a year involving hundreds of people, practicing scenarios that range from hazmat to security events.

The recent fire showed the progress made. In terms of successes, there was the use of social networking as well as the successful evacuation of Los Alamos, a town of about 12,000 people, in under six hours, says Steven A. Sandoval, a spokesperson for LANL.

But some issues remain. Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety Executive Director Joni Ahrends told Security Management that there was a fear that the fire was getting too close to Area G, a site that holds thousands of drums of transuranic waste, which is radioactive. Stanford confirmed that “Area G is the solid waste facility, and it does have containers of transuranic waste, which is destined to go to [the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant].” Sandoval says that the area was not in danger because the fire was about three miles away.

Still, the waste is potentially dangerous. A 2007 Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board report spelled out the danger posed by the waste in Area G:  “Several postulated accidents involving these transuranic waste drums result in very high consequences because of their significant radioactive material inventory, the proximity of the storage area to the site boundary and the lack of robust engineered controls to mitigate or prevent these scenarios.”

According to Stanford and Sandoval, a long-term effort has been made to clear the area of combustible material. For example, the lab has cleared that area of combustible items such as wood pallets. So the materials stored in the area consist mainly of asphalt and metal drums, according to Stanford. He adds that if the fire had gotten closer to Area G, extra precautions would have been taken. Firefighters would have been called in to cover the structures with a fire retardant foam.

However, some experts think that the transuranic waste drums should be completely removed. For example, the 2007 report also stated of the waste in Area G that “the Board believes it would be prudent to either expeditiously develop a viable pathway for shipping these drums off-site or, if an acceptable approach cannot be implemented in a timely manner, then improvements to the storage area safety posture should be implemented on an urgent basis.”

Despite LANL’s fire safety precautions, Ahrends is not satisfied with the progress of the lab’s effort to remove the drums. She says that hundreds of millions of dollars were allocated by Congress to the lab to dispose of the waste, and “the fact that it wasn’t all gone after 11 years and having adequate funding is problematic because it threatened our well-being once again.”

Additionally, Ahrends says resources that were devoted to protecting Area G and the lab during the fire may have drawn scarce resources away from other areas that burned badly, such as area watersheds.

LANL has received several critical reviews on its fire safety progress over the years. In 2009, the Department of Energy’s Inspector General Office found that firefighters were not receiving the necessary and required training for fighting fires at LANL, including facility-specific training.

Stanford says that there has been a big change since that report was released, however. Now, his group takes firefighters through enhanced facility walk-throughs so that they are familiar with unique hazards in each building and can learn how to better deal with the facilities if a fire comes through.

There has been an effort to change the mind-set of those in the facility so that they realize that wildfires are a fact of life in the area. “I certainly have the mind-set that we will have another fire,” says Stanford. “And I keep emphasizing that to people.”

Others think the risk has diminished now that everything has burned. He tells them, “We’ve still got a lot of fuel, and the potential for a fire happens very, very quickly.”

Stanford says the workforce is now more aware of the need to be prepared, and as a result, when it happens, “While people don’t like it, they don’t panic.”