Top US Nuclear Lab Could Be Impacted by Wildfires, Audit Warns

February 15, 2021 Updated: February 15, 2021

A top nuclear laboratory in the United States is at risk from wildfires because some mitigation measures have been ignored in recent years, an audit found.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) inspector general said the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico is prone to “future large, high-intensity wildfires that could threaten to seriously interrupt mission work,” as a large fire did in 2000.

The Cerro Grande Fire that year burned more than 7,500 acres of department land, damaging or destroying more than 100 structures and ruining a variety of lab projects and scientific records and forcing the lab to close for 15 days.

Another wildfire in 2011, the Las Conchas Fire, burned an acre of department land, and its intensity and proximity to the lab forced it to close for nine days.

In light of the fires, the inspector general undertook an audit to determine whether its Los Alamos office and lab contractors were taking steps to try to avoid potential fire-related closures and losses.

The review found that mitigation measures such as tree thinning weren’t always performed, “increasing the potential for a devastating wildland fire to spread.” Other highlighted concerns included a lack of maintaining fire roads and a lack of documentation of what measures had been completed.

Epoch Times Photo
High fuel levels in the Los Alamos Canyon, which increase the risk of a devastating wildfire that could destroy or damage lab property. (DOE OIG)
Epoch Times Photo
Poor road conditions that could make fighting wildfires more difficult in Los Alamos Canyon. (DOE OIG)

“Without documenting planning and preparedness activities, there was no assurance that all prevention and mitigation options were considered and that the site was fully prepared for wildland fire events,” the inspector general’s office stated.

The lab is located about 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe in rugged northern New Mexico. Promoting and protecting national security through work on nuclear weapons, lab workers research renewable energy, nanotechnology, and other subjects. The lab employs some 12,000 people and includes approximately 2,000 structures, including 13 nuclear facilities, strewn across 36 square miles.

The watchdog group Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the audit showed the need for a new site-wide environmental impact statement.

“The lab and DOE have so far blocked a new site-wide environmental impact statement which, as the past has shown, is actually in their own best interests. We believe LANL and DOE have a legal requirement to prepare a new one and NukeWatch will be pursuing that,” Jay Coghlan, director of the group, said in a statement.

Epoch Times Photo
Damage from the Las Conchas fire on a hillside in the Jemez Mountains near Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico on July 18, 2011. (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP Photo)

The lab and the department didn’t reply to requests for comment. A lab spokesperson told The Associated Press that since the audit was performed in 2018 and 2019, the lab has been aggressively completing wildfire management tasks.

“We continue to review our wildfire and forest health plans and have already implemented most of the recommendations the Department of Energy offered to improve our efforts to protect the public, the environment, and the laboratory,” he said.

Managers wrote to the inspector general to say they concurred with the audit’s recommendations, and that many of the recommended actions, such as conducting a site-wide wildfire risk assessment, were already planned or started.

“Because the audit focused on prior plans, most of the salient issues in the report had already been identified and captured,” William Bookless, acting undersecretary for nuclear security and administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration, wrote to Inspector General Teri Donaldson last month.

“We have prioritized and implemented actions to protect employees, the public, and the site’s critical infrastructure from the risks of wildland fire.”

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