Wildfire creeps closer to N.M. nuclear weapons laboratory
BY P. SOLOMON BANDA AND SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — The U.S. government sent a plane equipped with radiation monitors over the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory Wednesday as a 110-square-mile wildfire burned at its doorstep, putting thousands of scientific experiments on hold for days.
Lab authorities described the monitoring as a precaution, and they, along with outside experts on nuclear engineering, expressed confidence that the blaze would not scatter radioactive material, as some area residents feared.
“Our facilities, our nuclear materials are all safe, they’re accounted for, and they’re protected,” said lab director Charles McMillan.
The twin-engine plane, which can take digital photos and video, as well as thermal and night images, was sent to New York City to take air samples after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It has flown over other wildfires and areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“It can look for a wide variety of chemical constituents in a plume, and the plumes can originate from fires, from explosions, from a wide variety of sources,” said lab spokesman Kevin Roark.
And in a testament to the sophisticated research done at Los Alamos, the plane was developed with technology from the lab, the desert installation that built the atomic bomb during World War II.
The pillars of smoke that can be seen as far as Albuquerque, 60 miles away, have people on edge. The fire has also cast a haze as far away as Kansas. But officials said they analyzed samples taken Tuesday night from some of the lab’s monitors and the results showed nothing abnormal in the smoke.
Antinuclear groups have sounded the alarm about thousands of 55-gallon drums containing low-grade nuclear waste — gloves, tools and other contaminated items — about 2 miles from the fire. Lab officials said it was highly unlikely the blaze would reach the drums, and that the steel containers can withstand flames and will be sprayed with fire-resistant foam if necessary.
Kevin Smith, site manager for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the lab’s precautions have been scrutinized by dozens of experts.
The lab has been shut down since Monday, when the city of Los Alamos and some of its surrounding areas — 12,000 people in all — were evacuated. The fire has held up research on such topics as renewable energy, AIDS and particle physics.
The lab employs about 15,000 people, covers more than 36 square miles and has about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites. All were to remain closed today and Friday.
With the fire continuing to send up columns of smoke on the outskirts of town, fire officials said Wednesday that they would not let Los Alamos residents return until it was safe.
The blaze was only 3% contained, and the weather forecast called for more erratic winds in the coming days.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack toured the area Wednesday on a swing through portions of New Mexico and Arizona that have been ravaged in recent weeks by wildfire