Los Alamos National Laboratory, America’s premier nuclear weapons facility in New Mexico, assured Tuesday evening that its safety program was capable of handling the Las Conchas wildfire despite it being “a road away.”
“There are fire mitigations at all of our nuclear facilities, and I am confident in our ability to protect all of them. This is a strong team protecting a national treasure,” the lab’s director, Charles McMillan, said at a press conference in Los Alamos Tuesday.
“The Lab and our interagency partners have applied the lessons learned from Cerro Grande [fire in 2000],” Los Alamos Site Office Manager of the National Nuclear Safety Administration, Kevin Smith, said in a statement late Tuesday.
Los Alamos National Laboratory also announced it would remain closed until Thursday “because of risks presented by the Las Conchas Fire and the mandatory evacuation of Los Alamos town site.”
New Mexico’s Las Conchas fire was just three percent contained as on Tuesday afternoon and earlier during the day Los Alamos Fire Chief Doug Tucker had said the fire had burned up to New Mexico State Route 4, the lab’s boundary on its southwest side, and was burning in the Jemez Mountains on the western border. “When you ask how close it is to the border, it’s a road away,” Tucker said at the press conference.
Nuke safety activists have warned that the 60,741-acre Las Conchas wildfire poses a grave threat as it has reached close to the lab and thousands of outdoor drums of plutonium-contaminated waste from the Cold-War era.
“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,” The Associated Press quoted Joni Arends, executive director of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, as saying.
Incidentally, the website of Arends’ organization was hacked at such a crucial time, according to messages posted on its Facebook page.
It is feared that the fire could stir up nuclear-contaminated soil inside the lab premises where experiments were conducted years ago. Burrowing animals have brought that contamination to the surface, Arends added.
Approximately 341 personnel with four dozers, 12 engines, and five helicopters are battling the raging flames, according to fire officials.
Inside the lab area, covering over 36 square miles, firefighting teams are guarding the facilities. A small patch of the facility caught fire Monday but firefighters were able to quickly put it out. “We are throwing absolutely everything at this that we got,” Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico told AP.
According to lab officials, canyons will prevent the fire from reaching the drums of low-level nuclear waste.
The lab has implemented a “multiyear fire safety improvement program” since the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, Los Alamos National Laboratory said in the Tuesday’s statement. These measures include new fire trucks, service vehicles, and heavy equipment; a multimillion-dollar emergency operations center; $20 million worth of tree-thinning operations; clearing of ground fuels and construction of fire breaks and roads across the lab; and a new interagency fire center with a helicopter base and water dip tanks.
“The improvements between then [in 2000] and now are substantial and they are making a difference in this fire,” added the statement. Some of the lab’s structures were destroyed or damaged at the time, although no loss or destruction of any of the special nuclear material was reported.
The Las Conchas wildfire, the cause of which is under investigation, began on Sunday at around 1 p.m., approximately 12 miles southwest of Los Alamos.
Meanwhile, New Mexico Mayor David Coss opened free recreation facilities for evacuees. “The City is committed to helping the evacuees in any way we can. This is an extremely stressful situation and being able to take a hot shower and exercise or swim a few laps could help ease an evacuee’s mind for a while,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
Private restaurants also provided food to emergency crews and those who remained in Los Alamos, even as around 12,500 residents in and around the city had been evacuated as on Tuesday.
Founded secretly during World War II and now one of the world’s largest science and technology institutions, Los Alamos National Laboratory was central to the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb.