Department of Health Requests Information from LANL About Firewood

Study Warns of Threat to Inadequately Stored Spent Fuel Budget

* The New Mexico Department of Health recently sent a letter to Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) questioning the release of firewood to New Mexico residents from LANL property. LANL established a program last year that distributes firewood from felled trees from around LANL property to residents in surrounding communities.

The Department is concerned that the firewood that is being released may have been contaminated by LANL activities. If the wood is used for heating or cooking, it may release dangerous contaminants. Furthermore, many Northern New Mexicans use ash from wood stoves or fireplaces as a soil amendment in their gardens. This raises concerns considering that the Interagency Flood Risk Assessment Team (or IFRAT), one of the teams that analyzed the potential effects of erosion and runoff following the Cerro Grande Fire, found that the use of contaminated wood ash as a soil amendment could pose a health risk to those who consume the vegetables grown in amended soil.

Although the trees that LANL released for firewood have not been confirmed as potentially contaminated, the Department is requesting that the trees be characterized as soon as possible so that the Department may begin reviewing the potential human pathways that may exist. If potential health risks have not yet been adequately identified, the Department is requesting that the project be stopped until appropriate studies are performed.

The Department released the letter after Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety (or CCNS) raised the issue that the firewood may present a danger to the public. Joni Arends, of CCNS, said, "Although the IFRAT was very specific as to the particular canyon systems that may present contaminated ash, we must apply the precautionary principle and take action now in order to avoid involuntary exposure later. People must know the possible hazards of using this ash as a soil amendment."

* A study released recently by Princeton University outlines the dangers presented by the method currently used to store spent nuclear fuel in the U.S. According to the report, if one of the high-density storage tanks that are currently used to store spent fuel rods were to explode, as from a terrorist attack, it could release up to 70 times more radiation than that released at Chernobyl.

Spent fuel rods are extremely hot and could ignite if not properly cooled. They are stored in water-cooled tanks to prevent fire. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows America's 103 nuclear power plants to routinely fill the tanks to four or five times their safe capacity. If one of these tanks were to burst or spring a leak, the ensuing fire would release a radioactive plume.

The study's scientists called on Congress to mandate the construction of safer rod storage facilities, which could cost from $3.5 to $7 billion. The scientists are requesting more, low-density tanks, as well as air-cooled tanks for the older spent fuel rods. Frank Von Hippel, who led the team, said, "The Congress really needs to make a political judgment and needs to provide the Nuclear Regulatory Commission some guidance."

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