Is the US nuclear community prepared for the extreme weather climate change is bringing?

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By Susan D’Agostino | April 20, 2021 — Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

In May 2000, a planned burn to remove dead, dried underbrush on New Mexico’s drought-stricken Cerro Grande peak in the Bandelier National Monument grew out of control. As the sky darkened with smoke, a wall of flames fueled by high winds burned through tens of thousands of acres of land where people, elk, and bald eagles made their homes. The monstrous blaze escaped the monument’s containment line and headed to the forested birthplace of the atomic bomb—Los Alamos National Laboratory. There, it raced over soil, rocks, and trees contaminated from decades-old nuclear weapons testing, releasing radioactive particles into the air and setting 47 buildings ablaze. As the devastation unfolded, the wildfire inched close to, but stopped short of, a facility containing tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen.

“When you’re talking nuclear, it’s a magnitude of far greater risk of harm if something goes wrong,” said Alice Hill, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The US nuclear arsenal—which contains approximately 40 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads—has been built over decades, producing about 90 million gallons of radioactive waste. The United States also had 56 operational nuclear power plants at the end of October 2020 that together have produced over 80 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel. That waste is stored either in steel-lined concrete pools of water or in dry storage casks made of steel and concrete. Meanwhile, climate change is contributing to the intensity of drought, heat waves, heavy rain, flooding, hurricanes, and winter storms—all of which wreak havoc on infrastructure and the environment.

The US response to potential climate impacts on the country’s various nuclear activities has, in the eyes of many experts, fallen far short of what it needs to be.

“All of these [nuclear] structures were built on the presumption of a stable planet. And our climate is changing very rapidly and presenting new extremes,” Hill said. “There’s harm that stems from that.”

Drought and spent nuclear waste. When forests are drier for long periods of time, they act as kindling for wildfires. Extreme drought exacerbated by climate change is a key driver of wildfires in the Western United States, which are increasing both in frequency and in size. For nuclear infrastructure in the heart of wildfire territory, this trend spells trouble.

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