Scientists say U.S. nuclear sites vulnerable to natural disasters

LIVERMORE, Calif. (AP) — U.S. nuclear weapons production and storage centers are vulnerable to earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and other natural disasters, government scientists warn.
In worst-case scenarios, damaged facilities could spew radioactive material and toxic chemicals into surrounding areas, according to the experts asked by the Department of Energy to evaluate the danger.
The risks are not just theoretical, says Robert Murray of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory outside San Francisco.
“If we had a major earthquake today, we would have some major problems, including possible off-site radioactivity releases,” says Murray, chairman of the most recent conference on Natural Phenomena Hazards.
While the greatest danger is seismic, other threats include volcanic eruptions and flooding in the West and Northwest, direct hits by cyclones in “Tornado Alley” plants, and lightning strikes in Texas and the Southeast.
At the proposed national storage center for radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain, Nev., magma from volcanic activity “could ascend directly through the repository … compromising the integrity of the waste isolation system,” says a study done by DOE consultants.
A Senate vote on Yucca Mountain is scheduled for Tuesday.
The most vulnerable sites, however, are man-made. Many of the nation’s two dozen nuclear weapons centers were hastily constructed in the 1940s and 1950s, when meeting a potential Soviet nuclear threat was a higher priority than protecting the facilities against natural catastrphes.
Some have since been shut down, but still have radioactive material stored on their grounds.
The Rocky Flats, Colo., complex with its leaky plutonium containers was previously identified by the DOE as vulnerable to natural disasters. The studies show concern surrounds other plants as well.
The enrichment plant at Paducah, Ky., worries Joe Hunt of Lockheed Martin Energy Systems, who conducted a seismic evaluation for DOE.
The plant is located near the New Madrid fault, which less than two centuries ago rocked the Midwest with the largest earthquakes in recorded U.S. history. If the fault moves again, the plant will suffer, Hunt says.
Tom Cochran, a physicist and head of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nuclear watch program, says the Kentucky plant should be closed.
“They’ve got a huge surplus of enriched uranium now — they won’t need any for 100 years probably,” he says.
Another potential problem is the troubled Hanford, Wash., plant, already undergoing a $100 billion to $200 billion cleanup. In about 1200 A.D., a rockslide up to 400 million cubic meters in mass blocked the Columbia River. The Indians called it the “Bridge of Gods.”
The DOE had never looked systematically at natural hazards before the Clinton administration, says spokeswoman Anne Elliott, and is in the processing of preparing an evaluation of the risk.
The final report, scheduled for December 1998, is likely to come with a hefty projected price tag to upgrade protection measures, acknowledges Harish Chander, the new seismic safety coordinator for DOE.
“It could be billions,” he says.
That estimate is much too low, say some of the scientists conducting the studies. Dukelow, for instance, said the total bill could come in at $100 billion.
Maureen Eldredge of the Military Production Network, a coalition of peace groups, environmentalists and residents living near the weapons plants, say the best way to reduce the danger is to shut down weapons production that has lost its Cold War rationale.
DOE is spending its money to produce more nuclear material instead of safeguarding what the nation already has, she says.
“We don’t need more plutonium production,” says Eldredge. Most of the current facilities should be razed and nuclear storage centralized in the safest location possible, she says. That will take billions of dollars, but it will prove worth the cost, Eldredge says.