Scientists at the nation's nuclear weapons labs are spending less time figuring how to make super-weapons and more time trying to protect them from a grander force: Mother Nature.
Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, lightning, tornadoes, wildfires and volcanoes threaten labs and buildings operated across the country by the U.S. departments of Energy and Defense. These secretive facilities house the deadly legacies of the Cold War: nuclear weapons, radioactive waste and toxic chemicals.While an accident is unlikely, the consequences could be devastating. So researchers are looking for natural vulnerabilities in the weapons and energy-research complex.
"It's like when you're driving out the driveway," says Richard Hasbrouck, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory engineer and lightning expert. "You get out of the car and go back inside to ensure that you turned off the electric blanket and coffee maker."
Nuclear weapons plants originally were developed in the 1940s and 1950s to create thousands of atomic bombs, enough to deter a Soviet attack. Fearing the nation's fate was at stake, engineers didn't spend much time designing facilities to withstand seemingly improbable natural threats.
Since then, California quakes, Midwestern floods, city-busting tornadoes and the eruption of Mount St. Helens have reminded Americans of nature's dangerous power.
So now, as many post-Cold War labs are shut, mothballed or sealed like Tutankhamen's tomb - radioactive relics of the 20th century - engineers are retrofitting them to ensure that radioactivity never escapes into the environment.
They've made a lot of progress, but "quite a bit of work" is needed to protect against natural hazards, says Robert Murray, an engineer who is project leader of the Livermore Lab's Geologic and Atmospheric Hazards Project.
The latest issue of Livermore's scientific journal, Science & Technology Review, says that "DOE's Pantex plant, located in Texas, experiences about 60 lightning storms annually, and the threat of lightning igniting some of the propellants and high explosives stored at the plant is a real concern.
"Indeed, DOE considers lightning a particular risk to operations involving the transport, maintenance and modification of nuclear devices and their associated non-nuclear explosives."
A few weeks ago, Murray and his colleagues around the country published a 687-page report on their latest work. It's based on their fifth conference on natural hazards, held last November in Denver.
"But there may not be another conference," he laments. "Support for our overall program is drying up."
Although the government has pursued hazards reduction research for decades, it has been taken more seriously in the last few years.
Since the 1970s, Energy Department staffers and contractors have simulated accidents by firing steel beams at models of nuclear reactor containment buildings and studying how quakes could upset nuclear reactors.
At Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., a lightning simulator hurls giant electrical sparks at bomb components, missile parts and military aircraft to see how they'd weather a lightning strike.
But federal budgets are tight. What Murray calls his "shoestring" program - the $2 million-a-year Geologic and Atmospheric Hazards Project - has lost half its annual funding since 1990.
Some Energy Department sites may be accidents waiting to happen.
At the department's Savannah River nuclear site at Aiken, S.C., investigators discovered a "total lack of surveillance and preventive maintenance provided for the existing lightning protection equipment," David E. McAfee of Westinghouse complained at the November conference.
The problem could cost up to $1-million to correct.
More trouble may be brewing at the Energy Department's aging "gaseous diffusion" plants in Paducah, Ky., and Portsmouth, Ohio. The plants generated fissionable materials for nuclear bombs during the Cold War. Now mothballed, the buildings are "outside the acceptance limits" for seismic safety, said engineers from Lockheed Martin Energy Systems.
Researchers are learning how to protect Energy Department labs and facilities from:
EARTHQUAKES. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory "is very close to the San Andreas Fault. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is basically right on the Hayward Fault. ... And around Livermore there's the Greenville, Las Positas and Tesla faults," Murray says.
In 1980 a small quake on Livermore's little-known Greenville Fault triggered the release of a small amount of radioactive tritium. Since then, engineers have strengthened structures around the lab, including its secretive Building 332, which houses super-deadly plutonium.
Quakes have occurred all over the United States; some of the worst in U.S. history have hit Missouri and South Carolina.
Yet, Murray said, when he warned Energy Department facilities in other states about their seismic vulnerabilities, some people said, "Go away, don't bother us. Earthquakes are a California phenomenon."
TORNADOES. At least nine twisters have struck on or near the Savannah River site since 1953, according to an Energy Department document released in March 1995.
At the November conference, James R. McDonald and his colleagues from Texas Tech's Institute for Disaster Research in Lubbock, Texas, described how, using a high-speed gun, they simulated a tornado "hit" on nuclear facilities. The gun fired steel pipes and timber planks at walls.
FLOODS. In the Pacific Northwest, rock slides might block rivers and create floods that could threaten nuclear facilities, reported James S. Dukelow Jr. of Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richland, Wash.
Dukelow cited an old Native American legend of a so-called "Bridge of the Gods," a huge landslide involving 200 million to 400 million cubic meters of rock. The landslide blocked the flow of Washington state's Columbia River about 1200 A.D.
WILDFIRES. Last month a huge grass fire passed within a few miles of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where "The Bomb" was born in 1945. And in 1991, the devastating fire in the Oakland hills raged near Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
VOLCANOES. During the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state, "the ash covered multiple states," Murray said. "That ash is so fine that any `air breathing' motor ground to a halt immediately." A volcanic eruption could threaten emergency generators that protect department labs and other facilities.
The Energy Department is investigating whether to build the nation's first permanent burial site for highly radioactive waste underneath Yucca Mountain in the southern Nevada desert. Geologists have studied dormant volcanoes in the region to determine how recently they erupted and to estimate the possibility that the volcanoes might re-erupt during the facility's design "lifetime" - 10,000 years.
Now and then, natural events make it easier for Murray and his associates to convince others that their work is necessary.
For example, on May 21 a 4.7-magnitude quake struck on the Calaveras Fault during Murray's lecture about earthquake hazards near Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
"It was great. You couldn't ask for anything better," Murray said of the quake. "I thought, `Now I've got everyone's attention."'
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)