Wildfire Has Los Alamos Nuke Lab on High Alert

(Jun. 28) -A portion of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Officials said a nearby wildfire has not compromised the site's nuclear assets (U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory photo).
(Jun. 28) -A portion of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Officials said a nearby wildfire has not compromised the site's nuclear assets (U.S. Los Alamos National Laboratory photo).

A wildfire continued to rage on Tuesday in the vicinity of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, though personnel said nuclear materials held at the site had not been compromised, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, June 27).

The conflagration has spread across 68 square miles, devastating 30 buildings to the west and south of the Los Alamos complex. Firefighters continued work to contain the blaze, including one spot fire that erupted and was extinguished on the laboratory campus on Monday. The site has been closed, and natural gas lines to some points were cut off as a safety measure.

The fire at the complex burned a region called Tech Area 49, which half a century earlier served as the site for several subterranean tests involving radioactive materials.

Deputy Los Alamos County Fire Chief Mike Thompson said containment breaks established by firefighters have withstood the strong winds blowing.

"We're pretty confident on that front," Thompson said. "We'll pre-treat with foam if necessary, but we really want the buildings to stand on their own for the most part. That is exactly how they've been designed. Especially the ones holding anything that is of high value or high risk."

Environmental scientists were tracking for air contaminants, though the main worry was smoke, said Kevin Roark, a laboratory spokesman.

The federal complex stretches over 36 square miles and contains some 2,000 structures, including research buildings and dump sites. Some 12,500 area residents have had to flee their homes due to the fire.

The activist group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the wildfire seemed to be roughly 3.5 miles from an area where up to 30,000 55-gallon containers filled with plutonium-tainted waste are held in above-ground cloth structures. The watchdog group said the tanks were slated to be shipped to another waste storage site in the southern part of the state.

Laboratory spokeswoman Lisa Rosendorf in a Tuesday statement said such containers were held in a region of the complex called Area G. The containers are filled with waste dating back to Cold War-era activities.

The containers are located on a paved section of the Area G site and would not be jeopardized by fire in the event the blaze reached them, Rosendorf said. Officials said the complex is miles away from the wildfire.

"These drums are designed to a safety standard that would withstand a wildland fire worse than this one," the spokeswoman said (Bryan/Banda, Associated Press/USA Today, June 28).

Laboratory official Steve Sandoval declined to speculate on what would happen if the plutonium waste containers caught fire, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question other than to say that the material is well protected," Sandoval said. "And the lab, knowing that it works with hazardous and nuclear materials, takes great pains to make sure it is protected and locked in concrete steel vaults. And the fire poses very little threat to them" (Los Angeles Times, June 27).

June 28, 2011
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A wildfire continued to rage on Tuesday in the vicinity of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, though personnel said nuclear materials held at the site had not been compromised, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, June 27).