Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Perfect Storm: Climate Change Meets Nuclear Disaster

Image by fsgm
While public concern over the multiple nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima Daichi, in Japan, have all but disappeared, there have been several serious nuclear threats much closer to home. Wild fires in the Southwest have forced the shutdown of the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Lab in New Mexico for several days now. According to Democracy Now, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety reported that the fire has come within 3.5 miles of a dump site storing 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste in fabric tents above ground, and within a mile of the lab itself. Los Alamos is the main nuclear weapons lab in the country, and produces nuclear warheads.

While it is difficult to prove that the current fires are a direct result of climate change, as the Southwest is prone to fires at this time of year, it is clear that increasing global temperatures and changing weather patterns, especially droughts and heat waves, will increase the quantity and severity of wildfire events in general, thus making events like this much more common and serious. Even normal, seasonal fires place a tremendous strain on resources and emergency services, which is only exacerbated by the cutbacks and downsizing that has accompanied state budget crises. Consider how incompetent the federal and local responses were to the hurricane Katrina disaster.

The fire approaching the Los Alamos nuclear facility is not the only possible climate change-induced near-nuclear disaster this season. In Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, a berm protecting a nuclear power plant collapsed due to flooding, allowing waters from the Missouri river to reach containment buildings and transformers, forcing a shutdown of the plant, ABC News reported this week. The plant has been down since April, due to heavy rains and flooding in the Midwest and is located only 20 miles from Omaha, the state’s largest city. The Cooper Nuclear Power Station 85 miles downriver may face a similar fate, according to Democracy Now.

The flooding has devastated huge swaths of the Midwest. In North Dakota, the situation has been described as “apocalyptic,” which should give pause to anyone living near a nuclear facility. If spring rain can cause “apocalyptic” flooding, then nuclear disasters are not only inevitable, but impending, and the only sane response is to shut down all nuclear power plants and seek much safer storage facilities for the remaining wastes. Shockingly, the opposite is occurring. President Obama is not only considering an expansion of nuclear energy in the U.S., he has been pushing for an expansion of the nuclear weapons program, with a new $6 billion plutonium manufacturing center being built at Los Alamos, according to Democracy Now. Another plant of similar size is being built at the Oakridge, Tennessee facility, and another is planned for Kansas City. These plants will produce nuclear warheads for submarines, missiles and bombers.
Image by quapon

Meanwhile, the Fukushima disaster is far from over. The company running the plants has finally admitted that three of its reactors are still in meltdown, Daily Censored reports, while Democracy Now says that the Japanese authorities are now revealing that 15 tons of radioactive water have leaked into the ground and that people living 25 miles away have been contaminated with radioactive cesium and iodine. Significantly elevated levels of radioactivity have been found in milk and produce in Japan. However, slightly elevated levels have also been found in California and Arizona. Very little has been reported on the effects on fish. Considering that some fish migrate long distances and that they or their prey could be feeding in waters near the Fukushima disaster, the safety of local fish supplies should also be of concern.

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