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Los Alamos National Laboratory managers see little threat from wildfire

Los Alamos National Laboratory managers sought to allay fears Tuesday that an out-of-control wildfire burning near its boundary might lead to the release of radioactive material.

Although the lab stores low-level contaminated waste in thousands of metal barrels in a section of its 25,600-acre property, the Las Conchas fire is two miles away and extremely unlikely to reach the site, said Carl Beard, the lab’s operations director. “I just don’t see any scenario where the public is going to be impacted,” he said.

The barrels contain “fairly typical laboratory waste … coats, gloves, booties and caps,” said lab spokesman Kevin Roark.

Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said his department had the capacity to blanket the barrels with fire-retarding foam if a fire somehow sprang up at the storage site, which is paved and free of combustible materials.

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But anti-nuclear advocates said there was still some risk.

“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 Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, told the Associated Press.

The fire, mainly burning in the Santa Fe National Forest along the eastern and southern flanks of the Jemez Mountains, had grown to more than 60,000 acres by Tuesday morning, Tucker said.

No structures in Los Alamos or at the laboratory had been damaged, Tucker said. A burning ember started a small fire on lab property across the road from Bandelier National Monument on Monday, but it was quickly extinguished.

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Variable winds made it difficult to predict whether Los Alamos was still in danger, Tucker said. The greatest risk was that the fire would get into two canyons that run into the heart of the town, he said.

“This is a make-or-break day for Los Alamos County,” he said.

The fire could easily jump in size. “I seriously believe it could go to 100,000 acres,” Tucker said. “God, I hope not.”

Witnesses reported that the fire, which ignited in windy conditions Sunday afternoon, had been sparked by a downed power line, Tucker said. By Monday afternoon, Los Alamos County officials had ordered the evacuation of the town of Los Alamos, home to the laboratory headquarters and about 9,000 residents.

Many Los Alamos residents stayed with friends or in hotels. The American Red Cross set up a shelter in Española at the Santa Claran hotel and casino. Eighty-five people were camped out on green cots Tuesday, with meals provided by the Salvation Army.

Barbara Lai was munching on chips and reading a book while relaxing on her cot. She said she had moved from Norfolk, Va., to Los Alamos in March to work as a budget analyst for the county.

“We went from hurricanes to wildfires,” she said. She first spotted smoke from the Las Conchas fire Sunday while taking a walk with her visiting granddaughter, Veronica Lai, 12, who occupied the cot next to hers.

Nearby, Dave Weldon and Clement Switlik were getting acquainted as they sat on neighboring cots. Weldon, 75, a retired plasma physicist at the lab, has lived in Los Alamos since 1967. He was evacuated in 2000 when the 48,000-acre Cerro Grande fire burned 235 houses there. “This is familiar,” Weldon said. “I’ve done this before.”

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Los Alamos Police Chief Wayne Torpy and members of the County Commission visited the shelter Tuesday to update evacuees. “At this moment you don’t have to worry about any of your belongings or your houses,” he told them.

Police and National Guard troops were patrolling the town’s neighborhoods, looking out for stray pets and making sure homes were secure.

Lab director Charles McMillan said officials had learned lessons from the destructive Cerro Grande fire and had conducted extensive studies of worst-case scenarios in the form of fire or other natural disaster. An extensive air-monitoring system had not detected any radioactive releases, he said.

Haederle is a special correspondent.


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