Firemen fight to isolate 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste at Los Alamos plant

Daily Mail
01.07.2011
By Daily Mail Reporter

Firemen fight to isolate 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste at Los Alamos plant as blaze threatens to become largest in New Mexico state history

Proximity of 20,000 barrels of waste a cause for concern

Las Conchas Fire charred nearly 93,000 acres of thick pine woodlands

Plane with radiation monitors sent over nuclear laboratory as ‘a precaution’

Fire chief said nuclear material is ’secure’

Lab developed first nuclear weapons during World War II

Firefighters are battling to clear bone-dry brush from barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste three miles from the monster New Mexico blaze, set to become the largest in state history.

The Las Conchas Fire has charred nearly 93,000 acres of thick pine woodlands on the slopes of the Jemez Mountains since erupting on Sunday near the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

‘We’re seeing fire behaviour we’ve never seen down here, and it’s really aggressive,’ Los Alamos County Fire Chief Douglas Tucker said, adding that earlier hopes of lifting evacuations in the area by this weekend had been dashed.

The proximity of some 20,000 metal barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste, such as old, tainted clothing and equipment, stored on a corner of the complex, to the edge of the fire has been a cause for concern.

Lab officials say most of the low-level radioactive waste is kept on pavement and the 55-gallon sealed drums are built to withstand heat three times the temperature of a wildfire.

Still, crews worked on Thursday to clear a wider area around the storage site of vegetation, using industrial-sized mowers and large grinding machines to reduce grass, shrubs and small trees to mulch.

Thick smoke billowing over the region prevented officials from obtaining the accurate aerial views they needed for an afternoon update of acreage burned.

The state’s biggest blaze on record, the Dry Lakes Fire of 2003, scorched more than 94,000 acres of the Gila National Forest.

By comparison, the largest blaze in Arizona, the Wallow Fire, has blackened 538,000 acres since it erupted May 29 of this year. It is still burning.

The New Mexico fire, believed to have been sparked by a downed power line, has burned mostly in the Santa Fe National Forest and lapped perilously close to the Los Alamos weapons lab and adjacent town, home to some 10,000 residents.

Both have remained evacuated since Monday. Laboratory and fire officials say no structures within the sprawling lab complex have been damaged, and no release of radiation or other hazardous materials has been detected.

A firefighting force that has grown to roughly 1,200 people managed by Wednesday to carve containment lines around 3 per cent of the fire’s perimeter on the eastern and southern flanks, keeping flames from invading the lab complex.

Meanwhile a plane equipped with radiation monitors has been sent over the nuclear laboratory as the 110-square-mile wildfire continued to burn.

A 10-mile 16-kilometer fire line along a highway has held since Monday, save for a one-acre spot fire that started on lab grounds that was quickly extinguished.

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 analysed samples taken Tuesday night from some of the lab’s monitors and the results showed nothing abnormal in the smoke.

Kevin Smith, site manager for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the lab’s precautions have been scrutinised by dozens of experts.

The worst-case scenario Energy Department planners could envision for a fire at Los Alamos would release less than 25 rems or radiation - a dosage that is below short and long-term health concerns, according to a 1998 Environmental Impact Statement for operating the lab written by the department.

The same report said that wildfires are also one of the most likely risks for the lab, along with earthquakes. A bad wildfire is likely to happen at the lab about once a decade, the report said.
The blaze was only 3 percent contained and the weather forecast called for more erratic winds in the coming days.

Authorities have suspended routine removal of the waste drums for shipment to a permanent underground disposal site in southern New Mexico, said Los Alamos County Fire Chief Douglas Tucker.

The laboratory, which houses some of the world’s most advanced supercomputers, is also home to America’s largest supply of nuclear weapons, causing firemen and residents alike to panic.

Officials at the laboratory, where some 15,0000 are employed, also insisted that radioactive materials stored in various spots elsewhere on the site were safe from flames.

But lab personnel are monitoring the air for radionuclides and particulate matter. The lab also has monitors that can be used to check for possible radiation contamination from the fire.

The fire - which has destroyed over 30 buildings already - broke out on Sunday, at around 1pm, and officials were forced to close the Department of Energy facility yesterday.

The government site was founded during World War II to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons - creating the atomic bombs which were used in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - and is currently the nation’s pre-eminent nuclear facility.

Thousands of residents fled Los Alamos yesterday, ahead of the approaching wildfire that sent up towering plumes of smoke and rained down ash.

At the laboratory the fire scorched about an acre in the area known as the Tech Area, 49, which was used in the early 1960s for a series of underground tests with high explosives and radioactive materials.

The anti-nuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, however, said the fire appeared to be about 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometres) from a dumping site, where as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste were stored in fabric tents above ground.

Spokesman Steve Sandoval declined to confirm that there were any such drums currently on the property but acknowledged that low-level waste is at times put in drums and regularly taken from the lab to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project site in Carlsbad.

Traffic on Trinity Drive, one of the main roads out of Los Alamos, was bumper-to-bumper yesterday afternoon as residents followed orders to leave.

Authorities said about 2,500 of the town’s residents left under an earlier voluntary evacuation.

The fire has the potential to double or triple in size, Los Alamos County fire chief Doug Tucker said, and firefighters have no idea which direction the 60 mph winds will take it.

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