June 29, 2011

Wildfire Closes In On Los Alamos Nuclear Lab

The wildfire in New Mexico is closing in on the Los Alamos laboratory, which is the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

Officials at the nuclear-weapons lab said at one point the 95-square-mile fire was as close as 50 feet from the grounds.

Firefighters quickly put out a small patch of land at the laboratory that caught fire on Monday, and teams continue to stay alert for any new blazes that appear in the lab's perimeter.

"We are throwing absolutely everything at this that we got," Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico told reporters in Los Alamos.

Officials said that dangerous materials were safely stored and capable of withstanding flames from the wildfire.

The fire has forced the evacuation of all 11,000 people who live in Los Alamos and has raised fears that it will reach as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste.

"The concern is that these drums will get so hot that they'll burst. That would put this toxic material into the plume. It's a concern for everybody," Joni Arends, executive director of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, an anti-nuclear group, told the Associated Press (AP).

Lab officials said there was very little risk the fire would reach the drums of low-level nuclear waste.  However, they said they were ready to coat the drums with fire-resistant foam if it got too close.

Lab spokeswoman Lisa Rosendorf said the drums contain Cold War-era waste that the lab sends away in weekly shipments for storage.

"These drums are designed to a safety standard that would withstand a wildland fire worse than this one," Rosendorf said in a statement.

Los Alamos employs about 15,000 people and covers over 36 square miles.  It was created during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. 

The lab produced the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Teams from the National Nuclear Security Administration's Radiological Assistance Program were headed to the scene to help assess any hazards.

Lab officials said they were closely watching 60 air monitors for radiation and other hazards.

The wildfire has destroyed 30 buildings near Los Alamos.  Investigators said they are unsure what sparked the fire, although downed power lines were suspected.


Image Caption: A crew member aboard the International Space Station, flying at an altitude of approximately 235 statute miles on June 27, 2011, exposed this still photograph of a major fire in the Jemez Mountains of the Santa Fe National Forest in north-central New Mexico. The fire is just southwest of Los Alamos National Laboratories, which can be seen just right of center. Credit: NASA


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