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Michaels: Environmental impact statements are not a nuisance via Houston Chronicle

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The birthplace of the atomic bomb, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was founded in secret in 1943. By the late 1990s, when Department of Energy conducted a site-wide environmental impact review of proposed construction projects, the laboratory had accumulated more than a half-century’s worth of atomic waste. The final impact statement, in large binders no doubt similar to the ones President Trump derided, was issued in December 1999.

At the time, the Lab stored thousands of barrels containing plutonium-contaminated waste materials on wooden pallets. The barrels were surrounded by forest. The NEPA process requires public input, and at one of the hearings, people from outside the agency raised troubling questions about the potential impact of wildfire on the stored waste, questions the Lab had not previously considered.

Once the threat of wildfire was identified, appropriate actions were taken. The wooden pallets were replaced with aluminum ones. Nearby trees were cut down and barrels moved to safer areas.

Soon after, the western part of the country entered an unusually severe wildfire season, and almost 7 million acres burned that summer. One of those, the Cerro Grande Fire, started as a controlled burn at the Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. On May 4, 2000, high winds and drought condition drove it out of control. The massive fire swept through Los Alamos, burning 50,000 acres of forest and residential land, including thirty percent of the Laboratory’s land. The conflagration destroyed many of the historic buildings where the atomic bomb was invented and tested, along with more than 200 homes in the town of Los Alamos. The smoke plume reached the Oklahoma panhandle, hundreds of miles away. The fire’s damage was estimated at $1 billion.

Had the fire gotten to the nuclear waste, the consequences would have been far worse. That smoke plume could have easily transported plutonium particles, contaminating a large swath of the Southwest, exposing millions of people to increased risk of cancer.

Instead, the steps triggered by the environmental review were successful. No radiation was released.

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