Protecting the Laboratory's Waste Storage Site from the Las Conchas Wildfire

From late June and through July, the Las Conchas wildfire—the largest fire in recorded New Mexico history—burned more than 156,000 acres near Laboratory property in Los Alamos County and the surrounding region. The wildfire burned an area three times larger than the scorched acreage of the Cerro Grande fire in 2000.

After the devastation of the Cerro Grande wildfire, few people expected a second major wildfire. But personnel responsible for protecting stored radioactive waste at the Laboratory take nothing for granted—they continued to prepare for the possibility of fire.

Area G

This intentional vigilance by Laboratory emergency response and safety personnel paid off by protecting Laboratory property, including Area G, the Laboratory's radioactive waste storage area.

"Since Area G was never at risk during the fire, it was never necessary to deploy a Task Force to protect the site."
– Doug Tucker, Los Alamos County fire chief

Of great concern to the public and media during the fire, the 63-acre site is the main waste storage and handling area for Laboratory-generated low-level and transuranic radioactive waste. Transuranic ("beyond uranium") refers to man-made elements with atomic numbers on the periodic table are greater than the atomic number for uranium. Currently, Area G stores 10,000 55-gallon drums and other various-sized containers of waste above the ground, under 10 domes made of fabric stretched on metal ribbing. Another 6,000 are buried in underground storage. The waste consists of such things as contaminated clothing, tools and other work equipment, rags, soil, and debris from Laboratory technical sites.

Area G

Most of Area G is paved, and ground fuels, such as vegetation and small trees, have been removed in a buffer zone around the facility to stop or slow encroaching fire.

Safe Storage

"Area G was not endangered by the Los Conchas wildfire. It was secured by many layers of protection," says Doug Tucker, fire chief for the County of Los Alamos. Tucker oversaw the county's emergency response to the wildfire. In addition, at its closest, the Las Conchas fire was more than three miles from Area G.

Emergency preparations were made over the past decade, including extensive fire mitigation work. In addition, LANL has reduced the amount of waste stored at Area G.

"We do anything that's reasonably possible to ensure that none of our facilities get caught up in a fire of any kind—Area G being no exception," says Tony Stanford, the leader of the Emergency Operations Division, who oversaw LANL's emergency response to the wildfire.

In a word, the emergency preparations to safeguard the radioactive waste storage area were "excellent," according to Stanford. "Since the Cerro Grande fire in 2000, the Laboratory has improved its emergency response capabilities. We have spent a great deal of effort on preparing for any type of emergency."

Never in Danger

Fortunately, the Las Conchas fire burned only one acre on Laboratory property, and while those flames were quickly extinguished, preparations were already in place should the winds turn the fire toward Area G. During the blaze, firefighters set 130 acres of backburn. A backburn is a controlled fire intentionally set to burn fuels in front of a wildfire to slow or stop its approach.

Also helping in the fire protection, most of Area G is paved, and ground fuels, such as vegetation and small trees, have been removed to create fire breaks to eliminate any threat of fire. The fire breaks, 50-foot-wide barriers devoid of fuels, are a buffer zone around the waste storage area. Because Area G sits at the top of a low mesa with two canyons dissecting it "these canyons have been mitigated on at least three occasions, the most recent being during the Las Conchas fire," says Tucker. "Since prescribed burning is not allowed within Laboratory boundaries, mitigation entails not just thinning fuels but cutting trees and branches and removing them off the site." Crews used industrial-sized mowers and large-vegetation mulching machines known as "masticators" to reduce grasses, shrubs, and small trees around Area G.

But perhaps the best and most effective way to eliminate any fire threat, or other threat, to the radioactive waste stored at Area G is to remove the waste entirely and demolish the storage domes—and indeed, the Laboratory has been doing just that.

There are no combustible materials located within the structures at Area G. Metal waste containers are stored on metal pallets. The domes, made of fire-resistant fabric, are equipped with sprinkler systems, as are other structures onsite, and crews can quickly foam the area with fire retardant if needed.

During the Las Conchas fire, the Los Alamos Fire Department deployed Task Forces to protect at-risk structures, but "since Area G was never at risk during the fire, it was never necessary to deploy a Task Force to protect the site," says Tucker.  

Lessons Learned

After the Cerro Grande fire, which burned about 7,000 acres on Laboratory property, the Laboratory implemented a multi-year fire safety improvement program. Starting with an emergency Congressional appropriation, the Laboratory built its Emergency Operations Center (EOC), a two-story, multi-agency facility that spans 38,000 square feet and has space for 120 people. The EOC became the nerve center of the Las Conchas fire response, allowing Laboratory and government agencies to manage operations onsite, even while the fire blazed in the wooded hills directly across the road.

Forest thinning took top billing in the fire safety program after Cerro Grande, with $20 million used for thinning trees, clearing ground fuels, and constructing fire breaks across Laboratory property. The thinning work continued as the Las Conchas fire burned. Crews removed fuels and improved existing fire roads at five locations on Laboratory property.

The Laboratory also purchased more than 35 new fire trucks, service vehicles, and heavy equipment to fight fires. "After the Cerro Grande fire, all Los Alamos Fire Department apparatus were replaced with equipment specifically designed for wildland-urban interface firefighting, which included increased water tank size and compressed-foam capabilities, with bumper and mid-ship turrets on trucks to throw a water-foam mix," says Tucker. To help prevent flash floods and any contaminants from flowing down canyons after a fire, the Laboratory also improved stormwater runoff and erosion controls, including building structures and planting more than 10,000 willows to slow down and channel the runoff.

Hazards Analyses

Fire is just one of numerous potential dangers scrutinized by Laboratory safety personnel. Documents called safety basis documents, hundreds of pages thick, comprise extensive studies of worst-case scenarios that could result from fires or other natural disasters. Using these scenarios, safeguards are put into place before a disaster occurs.

"The people who write those documents and our safety designers are paid to be pessimists," says Dan Cox, deputy associate director for Environmental Programs, which oversees waste storage at Area G. "We've invested a significant amount of effort in analyzing fire events and ensuring the necessary controls are in place to protect the waste."

Future Mitigations

But perhaps the best and most effective way to eliminate any fire threat, or other threat, to the radioactive waste stored at Area G is to remove the waste entirely and demolish the storage domes—and indeed, the Laboratory has been doing just that.

"We've taken aggressive actions to reduce the inventory," says Cox.

In the last two years, as part of a multiyear plan to close Area G by 2015, the Laboratory has ramped up its waste shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, N.M., with more than 300 shipments completed since 2009. The waste, sent to WIPP in more than 750 shipments since 1999, has amounted to several hundred pounds of low-level radioactively contaminated gloves, lab equipment, and protective clothing.

In May this year, the Laboratory surpassed 100,000 plutonium-equivalent curies of transuranic waste shipped to WIPP, about one-third of the Laboratory's total. A curie is a measure of radioactivity for a given element. About 190,000 plutonium-equivalent curies remain to be shipped in the waste stored at Area G.

As the remaining drums are shipped, the Laboratory is demolishing unused storage structures. So far, three storage domes have been taken down, with 10 still remaining.

Taken together, these fire mitigation efforts should instill confidence in the nation in the Laboratory's ability to defend its nuclear facilities and hazardous material sites from wildfire. "These efforts will help us continue our national security mission," says Laboratory director Charles McMillan.

–Caroline Spaeth

WIPP Truck image

Waste drums from Area G are trucked to WIPP inside huge TRUPACT containers, made impact-safe with inner containment walls, thick insulation, and a stainless steel outer skin.

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