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Special Event

Energy Secretary Richardson Holds News Conference on Hanford Nuclear Reservation Fire

Aired June 30, 2000 - 12:17 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: As we've told you, fires have been raging near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state for the last several days. They now appear to have died down. We're told there has been no nuclear contamination at the site where nuclear waste is stored.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has been touring the damaged area over the last few hours. He's about to hold a press conference out in Richland, Washington. About 845 firefighters have been on the scene Friday, with nearly 110 fire trucks, bulldozers and other pieces of equipment.

Keith Klein (ph) is now at the podium, let's listen to him.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... parts of the site, some of the critical areas, where we had the firebreaks installed. And our firefighters made some very dramatic efforts to ensure the fire didn't spread any more than it needed to. I came back and stopped at one of the shelters, we'll be further going on to the track complex and showing gratitude to the incident commanders and the other folks that are staged out there.

I would also ask, I think we have Mr. Conkland (ph), Ms. McMaw (ph) from the Department of Public Health. Some of the folks who are involved in the monitoring from Washington state, and/or EPA. If they are here, might want to come up and join us. Deborah, if you want to join us, Al.

I turn it over to Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.

BILL RICHARDSON, ENERGY SECRETARY: Thank you very much. Let me make a few observations. There's been considerable focus on the fire, and deservedly so, but we shouldn't overlook the tragic beginning of this episode. It all started with a fatal traffic accident, the loss of a life. And my sympathy and all our sympathies should go to the Arnold (ph) family.

The resulting fire moved quickly, and I share with so many of you here the disappointment that the fire could not be stopped before it destroyed people's homes -- some 20 homes, some 36 structures in all. This was a stubborn fire to contain. I must applaud the outstanding teamwork. From the very beginning there was outstanding coordination between the federal, local, state and communities.

On behalf of all of us at the Department of Energy, I thank all who helped us not only prepare the Hanford site, but the surrounding communities as well.

I'm delighted to report that the fire is now contained. There are no major fires at this time. Regrettably it burned down 190,000 acres.

Other than a relatively small storage shed and equipment trailer and a small guard structure, we've had no damage to any Hanford facility. We'll be checking today on the condition of some soil- monitoring equipment which was stored in one of the damaged facilities. The equipment, which contains a radioactive source, is built to withstand extreme heat of 1,800 degrees for 30 minutes, so that we don't expect it will be damaged.

And we have -- as we have throughout the event, we will continue to take necessary precautionary measures to ensure protection of the health and safety of our workers, the public and firefighters.

Ongoing air monitoring on the site shows no indication of elevated radiation levels or radioactive or hazardous materials being dispersed as a result of the fire. Air monitoring is being done by the Department of Energy, the Washington State Department of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.

We were well-prepared for this fire, thanks to the lessons we learned from past fires, both here at Hanford as well as the most recent Los Alamos fire. For example, we immediately secured our sensitive material. All our plutonium was safely locked in vaults.

Secondly, we brought state and federal agencies in early to help fight the fire with firefighters on the ground and critical air support.

And thirdly, we immediately asked for and got the state and EPA to come to the site to set up independent air monitoring. This is key: There should always be independent air monitoring. You should not always believe the statistics from the agency that right now DOE is basically subject to this fire.

DOE, our agency, has long been aware of the risk of fire. We have developed emergency response plans. We've created buffer zones around our nuclear facilities by removing vegetation. At Hanford's tank farms, we installed ventilation systems to prevent buildup of gases, have monitoring systems in place to measure gas levels, and stripped away all brush and covered the tanks with gravel. I saw one of our sites where, because of the gravel that was put in there to prevent the brush from spreading, we were able to contain major damage to that facility.

MESERVE: Energy Secretary Bill Richardson speaking out in Richland, Washington. He has been surveying the damage done by the fire there. He says the fire is now contained after burning 190,000 acres.

A few buildings on the site of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation were in fact destroyed. And in one of the them there was some soil monitoring equipment, they're checking out its condition. He says ongoing air monitoring indicates that no radioactive material was released.

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