I was happy to see that Physics Today devoted a short column to the impact of fires on Department of Energy (DOE) facilities (October 2000, page 69), since nuclear weapons activities at these sites over the past 50 years have left measurable radionuclide contamination on the ground that could, in principle, pose a public threat when the soil is disturbed. Toni Feder did an admirable job in putting such risks at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in technical perspective. However, the statement that “there is broad agreement that the threat to the public and the environment would have been much worse had the Cerro Grande fire reached the hundreds of wooden boxes of transuranic waste” is distorted.
I am neither a lab spokesman nor a waste management expert, but I suspect that the purported “broad agreement” is confined to anti-nuclear advocates and is not shared by those who have taken a careful look at the technical details. As it turns out, the “wooden boxes” (actually, fiberglass-reinforced plywood) contain only oversized metal parts that await volume reduction and packaging in 55-gallon steel drums. All flammable waste is already stored in the same steel drums. Furthermore, the site has standard fire-safety practices: The storage area has been cleared of vegetation, ignition sources are kept at a distance, and fire fighters stand on alert to defend the area.
Trace levels of actinides deposited on metal parts probably can volatilize in wood-borne fires, and such a pathway for broad release of hazardous material should be considered a possible (if improbable) hazard. LANL and DOE have indeed considered such a threat in a recent environmental impact statement and calculated its downwind effects. The associated radiation dose to the public is rather small. 1 Consequently, I remain mystified as to the nature of the “threat to the public and environment” to which Feder refers.