A tale of two fires

30 April 2001

Nothing could have been done on-site to prevent the severe fires at two US nuclear facilities last summer. Fires that began outside the boundaries of the Hanford site in Washington and the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico grew and spread into their boundaries and right up to their buildings. Hanford – Washington

A vehicle fire resulting from a fatal head-on collision triggered the 24 Command Wildland Fire, which threatened several radioactive waste sites and the Fast Flux Test Facility on the Hanford site.

Vegetation on both sides of Washington State Route 24, which runs across the DoE Hanford site, caught fire after a passenger vehicle and semitractor-trailer collided on June 27, 2000. An abundance of natural fuel and adverse weather conditions allowed the fire to move rapidly across the 120-square-mile Fitzner-Eberhardt Arid Lands Ecology Reserve, part of the Hanford Reach National Monument located southwest of the central Hanford site.

Unlike the Los Alamos fire (see opposite) the vegetation consisted mainly of cheatgrass, tumbleweed and sage brush. Hot, dry weather had accelerated the fire season in the area, and the National Weather Service had warned that a critical fire weather pattern was ongoing or imminent.

From June 27 to July 1 the wildfire burned over nearly 300 square miles, consuming an average of 2000acres per hour (see panel, opposite). The fire came close to several major radioactive waste sites and blanketed others in a thick layer of smoke. The work of firefighters and the design of the buildings (which have wide concrete and gravel perimeters) kept site facilities safe. However, flames did pass over three inactive waste sites.

Judgments of need

On June 30 the manager of the DoE Richland Operations Office established a Type B accident investigation board (Board) to address the responses of the DoE and its Hanford site contractors to the fire. Having analysed the event, the conclusions reached by the Board led to the development of four primary judgments of need – managerial controls and safety measures required to minimise the probablity or severity of the recurrence of such an event. The judgments of need recommend that the DoE:

•Evaluate existing emergency response processes related to Hanford events affecting state and national systems, as well as state and national events affecting Hanford systems.

•Review and revise sitewide and protracted emergency and recovery operations, including emergency communications and resource readiness.

•Assess the Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan for inclusion of independent radioactivity monitoring by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during events and for limited deployment of the Federal Radiological Monitoring and Assessment Center whenever the EPA has been deployed.

•Improve the corrective action management system to ensure that improvement actions are managed adequately.

More than 900 firefighters from multiple agencies were involved in the event. They used 200 pieces of firefighting apparatus, including dozens of bulldozers, two helicopters and five air tankers. The efforts of hundreds of DoE and Hanford site contractor personnel focused on emergency response, radiological control and monitoring, and ensuring security and safety for site personnel and assets.

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