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The Woolsey Fire and Nuclear Safety in the Era of Climate Change


Aerial photograph of Area IV (4) of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, in the Simi Hills, Ventura County, California.

By Christine Parthemore

California’s endurance of its deadliest wildfires in history continues. In recent days, attention has grown to potential effects from the fire hitting the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a site formerly used for nuclear and rocket-related research. The laboratory was partially burned as the fire tore through the site.

Most sites with nuclear or other highly dangerous materials have layers of measures in place to prevent fires from reaching sensitive areas—firewalls, a dirt or gravel radius devoid of all vegetation around key buildings, etc.—as well as systems to detect and extinguish fires when they occur. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has fire-related requirements that it has changed over time in response to lessons from fires that occurred at nuclear reactor sites (though some questions on gaps in enforcement remain.)

But both fire-related requirements and related resources change when sites are no longer used for nuclear purposes, are undergoing cleanup processes, or are fully decommissioned. After nuclear-related operations at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory ended in 1988, radiological contamination cleanup commenced the following year and site remediation continues today.

This week authorities in California evaluated the Santa Susana Field Laboratory site and released notice that they found no concerning elevation in radiation levels stemming from the fire, though some advocacy groups are requesting independent confirmation. Several members of the Working Group on Climate, Nuclear, and Security Affairs run by the Council on Strategic Risks have noted the critical importance of public support for fully funding the security and cleanup of former nuclear sites, including to mitigate risks from natural disasters like the Woolsey Fire.

In the current issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, we wrote that “the effects of climate change stand to heighten nuclear risks in various ways, including direct impacts on nuclear facilities.” We highlight the urgency of further work to understand these combining nuclear and climate risks. We also note that governments and analysts have unprecedented foresight for understanding these risks, and a responsibility to use that foresight to prepare for a world in which climate change is affecting the full range of nuclear-related risks.

The U.S. government has affirmed that these threats are rising. In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security’s sector-specific plan for nuclear reactors, materials, and waste drew attention to the fact that “several emerging issues have the potential to exacerbate sector risks. Climate change and increasingly severe natural disasters increase risks for nuclear power plants, many of which are operating with aging equipment.” This kind of recognition is an important first step in fully integrating data on climate trends into policies and practices for keeping U.S. nuclear sites safe and secure.

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