In the last issue of the Nuclear Monitor we reported on the smoldering underground fire that has come within 350−400 metres of a radioactive waste dump, the West Lake Landfill, in the U.S. state of Missouri. The site has been in the news again with an above-ground brush fire on October 24, started by a faulty switch inside the landfill's perimeter. The fire was doused before it reached the area containing radioactive waste. The EPA sent a letter reprimanding site operator Republic Services for the incident.1
On October 26, about 300 local residents attended a 'Community Advisory Group' meeting to discuss the West Lake Landfill smoldering fire (which has been burning since 2010) and the October 24 fire. Many are sceptical about the reassurances provided by government and company representatives. "I'm scared," said Darlene Hartman, a life-long resident. "You try to eat healthy, you try to be good citizens. And you don't know who to trust."2
On October 18, a fire broke out at a radioactive waste dump in southern Nevada. The fire followed flash flooding that shut down the town's escape routes: U.S. 95 and Highway 373. County officials and law enforcement agencies declared an emergency. The site, operated by U.S. Ecology, is home to 22 low-level radioactive waste storage trenches that range in size from shallow holes to chasms hundreds of feet deep and wide as football fields.3
Associated Press reported on October 25:4
"The operator of a closed radioactive waste dump that caught fire in southern Nevada last weekend was troubled over the years by leaky shipments and oversight so lax that employees took contaminated tools and building materials home, according to state and federal records.
"A soundless 40-second video turned over by the firm, U.S. Ecology, to state officials showed bursts of white smoke and dirt flying from several explosions on 18 October from the dump in the brown desert, about 110 miles north-west of Las Vegas.
"In the 1970s, the company had its license suspended for mishandling shipments – about the same time state officials say the material that exploded and burned last weekend was accepted and buried.
"Nevada now has ownership and oversight of the property, which opened in 1962 near Beatty as the nation's first federally licensed low-level radioactive waste dump. It closed in 1992. State officials said this week they did not immediately know what blew up.
"A state fire inspector, Martin Azevedo, surveyed the site on Wednesday. His report, obtained on Friday by the Associated Press, described moisture in the pit and "heavily corroded" 55-gallon drums in and around the 20ft-by-30ft crater. Debris from the blast spread 190ft. Two drums were found outside the fence line. ...
"In 1979, the then Nevada governor Robert List ordered the Beatty low-level waste facility shut down and launched an investigation after a radioactive cargo fire on a truck parked on U.S. Highway 95, at the facility gate.
"The fire came three years after employees were dismissed for stealing radioactive building materials, tools and even a portable cement mixer, according to a 1994 report prepared by the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory.
"Operations at Beatty resumed "only after assurance was given by the federal government that the rules governing shipments … would be enforced," according to the Idaho lab report.
"List expressed doubt that anyone will ever know what is really underground at the site. 'Good luck with that," he said. "What we found when we did our investigation was they had very, very skimpy records about what was there.'"
The Nevada Department of Public Safety said in an October 19 statement that high altitude and intermediate altitude testing resulted in negative readings for radiation.
The Department said it would initiate an investigation to determine the cause of the fire.5
The underground chemical explosion at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Nevada on 14 February 2014 has generated huge public and media interest ... so much so that a fire that occurred nine days earlier has been all but forgotten.6 A truck hauling salt caught fire on 5 February 2014. The fire consumed the driver's compartment and the truck's large front tires. Six workers were treated at the Carlsbad hospital for smoke inhalation, another seven were treated at the site, and 86 workers were evacuated.
A March 2014 report by the Department of Energy's Accident Investigation Board blamed Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP), the contractor that operates the WIPP site. The Accident Investigation Board said the root cause of the fire was NWP's "failure to adequately recognize and mitigate the hazard regarding a fire in the underground. This includes recognition and removal of the buildup of combustibles through inspections, and periodic preventative maintenance, e.g., cleaning and the decision to deactivate the automatic onboard fire suppression system."7
In 2011, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent advisory board, reported that WIPP "does not adequately address the fire hazards and risks associated with underground operations."8
Spent fuel pools and reactors
Fire could result in a catastrophic accident if it compromised spent nuclear fuel pools. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff calculated that if even a small fraction of the inventory of a Peach Bottom reactor pool were released to the environment, an average area of 9,400 square miles (24,300 square kilometers) would be rendered uninhabitable, and that 4.1 million people would be displaced over the long-term.9
Reactors are also at risk. The Union of Concerned Scientists noted in a 2013 paper: "Fire poses significant risk to nuclear power plant safety. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) estimates that the risk of reactor meltdown from fire hazards is roughly equal to the meltdown risk from all other hazards combined − even assuming that plants comply with fire protection regulations, which many do not. Because of this risk, the NRC established a set of fire safety regulations for nuclear plants in 1980 and an alternate set in 2004. However, today − more than 30 years after those regulations went into effect − nearly half of U.S. operating nuclear reactors do not comply with either set of regulations.10
A report found that there were around 100 fire incidents at nuclear sites in France in 2011 − reactors, reprocessing plants and other nuclear sites. The dangers must be "taken very seriously", said Jean-Christophe Niel, managing director of national nuclear safety regulator ASN. About 10 of the 100 fires were considered significant in terms of nuclear safety, Niel said.11
A 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Energy details many of the interconnections between climate change and energy. It noted that power lines, transformers and electricity distribution systems face increasing risks of physical damage from wildfires that are growing more frequent and intense.12
Peaceful nuclear explosions
The nexus between fire and nukes is an altogether unhappy one. If there is an exception, it is this unlikely yarn about 'peaceful nuclear explosions' from the science and culture blog io9:13
"All in all, nuclear civil projects were a massive mistake. There was one use, though, that seemed to work. The Soviet Union tried it several times, and actually had some success: it turns out nuclear bombs are great ways to put out fires. That's not as unimpressive as it sounds! Underground fuel reserves are vast stores of combustible material that cannot be reached by human firefighters, but can quite merrily burn. Coal, peat, and gas fires can burn for decades. Centralia, Pennsylvania had a coal seam that caught fire in 1962 and is still burning. The Urtabulak gas field caught fire in 1963. It burned steadily for three years. In 1966, the Soviet Union decided to do something about that.
"The gas fire was ventilated by the holes that had been drilled to harvest the gas; if the holes could all be sealed shut, the fire would go out. Naturally, no one could go into a vast gas fire to shovel earth into a deep hole. Geologists and physicists calculated that a nuclear explosion equal to about 30 kilotons of TNT could seal shut every hole within about 50 meters. The rock would basically melt over the fire. In the fall of 1966, a special nuclear bomb was detonated in one of the holes, and fire was out in 23 seconds.
"But if it's not one thing, it's another. Within a few months of that fire going out, a new fire, in another gas field, erupted. In 1968, the Soviets dropped a bomb into that one. This took longer. For a few days, rock and other earth flowed into the holes, but eventually it worked. The fire went out. In 1972, another well was sealed off after it caught fire. The last known attempt at sealing a gas fire with a nuclear weapon was done in 1981, and it did not work out. The scientists couldn't get accurate data on the location of the vents in the well. The bomb went off, but the well never entirely sealed shut."
Finally, if there is a nukes-and-fire story more bizarre than the use of 'peaceful nuclear explosions' to put out underground gas fires, it involves U.S. shipyard worker Casey James Fury, who in May 2012 was having problems with his ex-girlfriend and wanted to leave work early. So, naturally, he set fire to a nuclear submarine. The USS Miami sustained US$450 million damage in the blaze, and Fury was given a 17-year jail sentence.14
3. Kyle Roerink, 20 Oct 2015, 'Beatty residents call for transparency after nuclear fire', http://lasvegassun.com/news/2015/oct/20/beatty-residents-call-for-transp...
4. Associated Press, 25 Oct 2015, 'Radioactive waste dump fire reveals Nevada site's troubled past', www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/25/radioactive-waste-dump-fire-reve...
5. Nevada Department of Public Safety, 19 Oct 2015, 'Media Release: Update on the U.S. Ecology Industrial Fire in Nye County', dps.nv.gov/media/PR/2015/Update_on_the_U_S__Ecology_Industrial_Fire_in_Nye_County/
6 June 2014, 'Fire and leaks at the world's only deep geological waste repository', Nuclear Monitor #787, www.wiseinternational.org/node/4245
10. Union of Concerned Scientists, June 2013, 'NRC's Failure to Enforce
Reactor Fire Regulations', www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/nuclear_power/ucs-nrc-fire-regulations-5...
11. Platts, 28 Aug 2013, 'French nuclear power plants must improve fire safety measures: regulator', www.platts.com/latest-news/electric-power/london/french-nuclear-power-pl...
12. U.S. Department of Energy, July 2013, 'U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather', http://energy.gov/downloads/us-energy-sector-vulnerabilities-climate-cha...
13. Esther Inglis-Arkell, 27 March 2015, 'How To Fight Fire With Nuclear Bombs', http://io9.com/how-to-fight-fire-with-nuclear-bombs-1694002958
14. Daily Mail, 8 Aug 2013, 'Nuclear submarine set alight by worker who wanted to go home early will be scrapped because of military budget cuts', www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2386909/Nuclear-submarine-USS-Miami-set...