Wildfire Threat to Texas Nuclear Weapons Facility Highlights Intersecting Risks

March 7, 2024 | 11:47 am
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Kristy Dahl
Principal Climate Scientist

Update: This version corrects response to question regarding the health risks from a potential Pantex nuclear facility fire.

Last week, Texas’s Windy Deuce Fire, one of several large fires that broke out in the state’s panhandle region, passed within a few miles of a nuclear weapons facility and necessitated an emergency evacuation of nonessential employees. The immediate threat of wildfire to the Pantex nuclear facility, at which nuclear weapons are assembled and disassembled, has passed for now. But is it normal for a wildfire to be burning in Texas in February? What role is climate change playing? And with wildfires growing more severe and burning larger areas, how many other nuclear facilities are at risk?

As climate change increases the frequency or intensity of extreme events such as wildfires, heat waves, and heavy downpours, there is an increase in the potential for different types of risks to coincide or for a climate-related event to trigger a cascade of non-climatic consequences. Last week’s narrowly-missed collision between a climate-related event and nuclear weapons—two of the planet’s greatest existential threats—highlights the dangerous games humanity is playing with each and serves as a potent reminder of why action to reduce the risks associated with each is so critical.

Wait, wildfires in February?!

The current wildfires in the Texas Panhandle have burned more than 1.3 million acres of land over the past six days. That’s an area larger than the state of Delaware. One of those fires—the Smokehouse Creek Fire—has become the largest in the state’s history at over one million acres alone.

Wildfires are occurring over a longer period of the year than they used to, though every region has its own typical peak season of wildfire risk. In Texas, wildfire risk tends to peak both in the winter (February through April) and during the summer (August through October). Wildfires occurring between January and May make up the bulk of the state’s 30 largest wildfires on record.

Is climate change affecting wildfires in Texas?

Fires typically need a combination of high winds and dry conditions to grow to the size of a fire like the Smokehouse Creek Fire, and climate change is making those dry conditions more common. Increased temperatures tend to worsen droughts and dry out the vegetation that then becomes fuel for wildfires. With the hotter, drier conditions climate change is enabling, wildfires are able to burn larger areas.

The wildfires burning in Texas right now broke out after a heat wave, made more likely because of climate change, brought temperatures as high as 100°F to parts of the state. Those high temperatures are part of a global period of extraordinarily warm temperatures—2023 was the hottest year on record, and global temperatures have continued to run about 1°C (nearly 2°F) above the historical average so far this year.

It’s likely that the Texas heat wave contributed to the wildfire outbreak. And above-normal precipitation in January may have also spurred the growth of vegetation that then became fuel for the fires. It’s difficult to say for sure whether climate change has played a significant role in this event, but the fact that the fires were unusually large and occurred during an unusually warm period points to at least some climate signal.

Wildfires threaten nuclear weapons facility

The Texas Panhandle wildfires have claimed lives of two people, burned at least 500 structures, and killed thousands of cattle. Worryingly, they also forced a temporary shutdown and evacuation of the Pantex nuclear weapons facility. Pantex is the primary US site in which nuclear weapons are assembled and disassembled and where plutonium from thousands of retired weapons is stored.

To find out how big a deal it is to have a facility like Pantex threatened by a wildfire, I posed a few questions to two of my colleagues in UCS’s Global Security Program: Chanese Forté and Dylan Spaulding. Here’s our conversation:

Me: Has anything like this happened before? Or are nuclear facilities relatively insulated from climate risks?

Dr. Spaulding: The US nuclear weapons complex includes sites spread across the nation in diverse locations, none of which are immune to climate impacts. Two major wildfires threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in 2000 and 2011. The lab conducts research to maintain the US nuclear stockpile among other missions. Both fires lead to evacuations of Los Alamos except for essential personnel and both burned right up to the lab’s boundaries and into residential areas of the town. The biggest fear was that fires would reach radioactive waste stored in above-ground holding areas that could have presented a contamination risk to the surrounding region.

Just like the current fires in Texas, the 2011 Las Conchas fire in New Mexico was, at the time, the state’s largest fire on record at 156,000 acres. One of the two fires began as a controlled burn that got out of control while the other is believed to have been caused by a downed power line. In both cases, preceding drought meant that there was abundant fuel and very fast spread. These are the same conditions that have led to the recent, record-breaking fires across other western states.

Pantex is surrounded mostly by agricultural fields and grasslands for cattle. Fires can travel very quickly in that environment, particularly if they are wind-driven. The hazardous materials at Pantex, including US stockpiles of plutonium and large amounts of high explosives, are stored in bunkers and magazines that are more fire resistant than a traditional building but that doesn’t mean that they were explicitly designed to have fires burn over the tops of them, either.

Elsewhere in the nuclear complex, there are potential risks from stronger hurricanes, from sea-level rise or flooding from more extreme precipitation events. Maintenance and operation of nuclear facilities, including emergency response in the event of a natural disaster, rely on many of the same transportation corridors and supply chains that we’ve seen are so easily disrupted when there are major weather events. In that sense, there really is no “insulation” from climate risks but there needs to be increased awareness of risk and subsequent preparation.

Fire perimeters around Los Alamos National Laboratory for the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire and the 2011 Las Conchas Fire. Source: https://www.spa.usace.army.mil/Media/Images/igphoto/2000946257/

Me: If a wildfire were to reach Pantex or another nuclear facility, what are some of the possible consequences? Are there risks to national security?

Dr. Spaulding: In the worst-case scenario in which a fire did reach stored radioactive material or hazardous waste, the immediate risks are not to our national security but rather to the domestic population who could be exposed to hazardous materials released into the environment. These materials could be carried in smoke or as particulates  in the air. Consequences to the immediate site would be long-lasting contamination, requiring difficult and costly remediation.

Me: What about consequences to public health? Wildfires themselves can harm public health in many ways, including through particulate matter carried thousands of miles by smoke, but how would the risks be different if a facility like Pantex were to actually burn?

Dr. Forté: In short, we do not know. The environmental and public health effects depend on the quantity of material that is released, how it becomes distributed in the environment, and the available routes of exposure, among other factors. Because the environmental impact assessment of Pantex does not include the possibility of fire, the risks of plutonium release by fire are not known.

Nuclear facilities have caught fire in the past due to failed safety measures within the facility but not due to fires external to the facility (such as wildfires). As climate change continues to increase the occurrence of extreme weather events–such as wildfires, earthquakes, and tsunamis–nuclear facilities’ Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) should consider including extreme weather in predictive modeling and theoretical scenarios, especially if they are located near past extreme weather events like Pantex now finds itself.

It is known that airborne plutonium can harm the human body especially when inhaled causing lung disease, lung cancers, bone cancer, and more. And specifically, children and women are more radiosensitive meaning they can likely have worse health outcomes with the same exposure.

These special considerations on age are still not included in harm to community descriptions within EIS. However, we do not have the data to determine how much or even if plutonium or other nuclear materials will be released into the air, soil or water due to a wildfire at this time and we should not wait to analyze this until something does happen.

It is best if you think that you or someone you know could be exposed to the dangerous heat and smoke from wildfires to seek cover and avoid going outside. If you must go outside, cover your face or wear an N-95 facemask, drink lots of water, keep your central air on or utilize HEPA filters throughout the home (if possible), and make sure to stay up to date on the air quality rating for your area. Additionally, here are tips for homeowners in the area, especially those who cannot stay elsewhere until the fire is under control.

Me: On the climate front, we know that reducing heat-trapping emissions would reduce the future risks of wildfires and other extreme events. Is there an equivalent on the nuclear weapons front? What needs to happen to reduce future risks?

Dr. Spaulding: I think that in both cases there is a direct parallel in that we need to reduce the “source term” at the root of the problem. For climate, that means reducing emissions. For nuclear weapons, that means reducing our reliance on a nuclear arsenal that requires an increasingly vulnerable nuclear infrastructure to sustain it.

The US is unfortunately on the cusp of expanding and upgrading our nuclear arsenal which will mean more hazardous nuclear materials being used, transported, or stored across the country. It seems unlikely that spending on climate resilience or remediation of environmentally vulnerable sites will keep pace or increase to keep these locations safe. Reducing the risk means factoring climate change into plans for responsible stewardship of the nuclear arsenal but ultimately reducing our reliance on the weapons themselves.

How many nuclear facilities in the US are at risk from wildfires?

As I was preparing this post, one of the most chilling things my colleagues told me was that the Pantex plant had an Environmental Impact Statement on file that did not even mention wildfire as a potential risk to the facility. That prompted us to create the map below, showing the locations of US nuclear weapons facilities and the footprints of wildfires that have burned since the year 1900. What we found is that there are five sites designated by the Department of Energy as defense nuclear sites that have been within five miles of wildfire. This is not a comprehensive list of all nuclear sites in the country though, as much of that information is not publicly available, so the map may underestimate actual risks.

Of the publicly available locations of defense nuclear sites from the Department of Energy, five are located within five miles of an area burned by wildfire since the year 1900. Sources: Department of Energy, NIFC, and WFIGS

Addressing risks of overlapping and compounding disasters

Climate change is expected to increase the occurrence of overlapping, compounding, and cascading disasters. When these complex climate events occur, it is more difficult for communities to physically, economically, and psychologically rebuild. Actions we take to reduce the scale of future climate change and to reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons could help to prevent some of the worst outcomes. In addition, though, we need to be considering complex climate events more holistically rather than as the sum of their parts. Multidimensional assessments across multiple disasters as well as pre-disaster and longitudinal research studies that span the pre-disaster through post-disaster period would also help us to better understand how to prepare for and recover from such events.