California wildfires: Fears radioactive waste could be caught in destructive blaze

Physicians fear smoke and ash from the fire spread contamination that was in soil and vegetation

Samuel Osborne
Wednesday 14 November 2018 18:08 GMT
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An organisation of physicians fear radioactive waste could become a major issue after southern California’s huge wildfire burned near a former nuclear test site.

The organisation of Physicians for Social Responsibility said it was likely that smoke and ash from the fire spread radiological and chemical contamination that was in soil and vegetation near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory.

“We know what substances are on the site and how hazardous they are. We’re talking about incredibly dangerous radionuclides and toxic chemicals such a trichloroethylene, perchlorate, dioxins and heavy metals,” Dr Robert Dodge said in a statement.

“These toxic materials are in SSFL’s soil and vegetation, and when it burns and becomes airborne in smoke and ash, there is real possibility of heightened exposure for area residents.”

Regulators in California said initial testing found no elevated levels of radiation of hazardous compounds after the blaze near the site.

The Department of Toxic Substance Control said its staff went to the Santa Susana Field Laboratory on Saturday and found facilities that previously handled radioactive and hazardous materials were not affected by the fire.

The state agency said its measurements on the site and in the surrounding community found no radiation levels above background levels and no elevated levels of hazardous compounds other than those normally present after a wildfire.

In an update to their previous statement, the Organisation of Physicians for Social Responsibility said it was “irresponsible to claim that SSFL contamination was not spread further by the fire”.

Night vision military drone shows Camp Fire tearing through California

The Santa Susana Field Laboratory was used for decades to test rocket engines and for nuclear energy research.

One of its nuclear reactors had a partial meltdown in 1959, when nuclear material was intentionally vented to prevent the site’s “Sodium Reactor Experiment” from overheating and exploding.

Battles over decontamination efforts have gone on for years, with neighbours blaming the site for illnesses.

The so-called Woolsey Fire in southern California has killed two people, destroyed more than 400 structures and at its height displaced about 200,000 people in the mountains and foothills west of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Northern California is beset by its most deadly wildfire in history, dubbed the Camp Fire, which has killed at least 48 people, some burned beyond recognition.

The death toll of 48 far exceeds the previous record for the greatest loss of life from a single wildfire in California’s history – 29 people killed by the Griffith Park fire in Los Angeles in 1933.

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