LANL says nuclear materials safe from growing blaze Jennings |
The New Mexican
Posted: Monday, June 27, 2011 – 6/28/11

A spokesman for Los Alamos National Laboratory said emphatically Monday afternoon that hazardous and nuclear materials on-site aren’t threatened by the fast-moving Las Conchas Fire.

The spokesman defended the lab’s protection of the materials as the inferno raged toward the community of Los Alamos, causing a mandatory evacuation, and as officials confirmed a small spot fire near one of the lab’s technical areas. No structures were in peril, LANL spokesman Kevin Roark said Monday.

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“It’s locked away,” Roark said of hazardous and nuclear materials stored on lab property, particularly in Technical Area 55.

“We’re very, very good at protecting nuclear materials, from both a safety standpoint and national security standpoint,” Roark said. “The buildings where these things are kept are very robust. They are concrete. The walls are very robust. They’re big, strong heavy buildings. The threat from wildfire is extremely low.”

In addition to the sturdy buildings, Roark said, since the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire, which burned several thousand acres at LANL, the lab has been clearing away vegetation and trees near structures to make sure a fire doesn’t have fuel to feed on if it reaches lab property.

“We’ve replaced a lot of old buildings. We’ve gotten rid of transportables,” or trailers, Roark said.

Roark’s declarations Monday didn’t go far to reassure lab critics and nuclear activists, who worried about the safety of the hazardous materials and the building blocks that go into producing nuclear bombs.

Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, a nuclear watchdog group, issued a media alert Monday evening warning about the proximity of the fire to Area G, where transuranic radioactive waste contained in metal containers is housed, awaiting transportation to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Fred de Sousa, spokesman for the lab’s environmental programs, said the containers hold byproducts of weapons production and research, such as discarded lab equipment and gloves contaminated with elements such as plutonium and americium.

About 10,000 of the containers are stored above ground under fabric domes, and 6,000 are “retrievably” buried. He said the containers have not been tested for their ability to withstand wildfire, but he noted Arera G is “relatively barren, most of it is paved and there’s not a lot of fuel there.” He said currently the fire is burning away from Area G.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a watchdog group, on Monday questioned the safety of nuclear materials given that the lab has been threatened by two large fires within 11 years — Cerro Grande and this year’s Las Conchas Fire.

“We need to begin questioning whether expanded nuclear weapons production at Los Alamos is feasible in a possibly long-term drought and climate warming punctuated with catastrophic forest fires,” Nuclear Watch Director Jay Coghlan said in a news release.

Greg Mello of the Las Alamos Study Group, meanwhile, said the behavior of the Las Conchas blaze had made him rethink the safety of the materials at the lab.

“This fire has surprised me,” Mello said a little after 3 p.m. Monday. “I would never have expected this to get so big so quickly. Just three hours ago, I wasn’t very worried. I’m not as certain now. The number of unknowns is increasing with this fire behavior.”

The lab is a government installation where classified work is still done and where much work remains secret. Officials from the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board could not be reached Monday to weigh in on the materials’ safety. That federal agency oversees nuclear-weapons complexes operated by the Department of Energy to ensure that, among
other things, nuclear materials are stored and disposed of in a safe way.

The small spot fire reported on lab property Monday was in Water Canyon, within the lab’s Technical Area 49, on the lab’s southwestern boundary, a lab news release said. The fire jumped across N.M. 4 onto lab property, the release added.

Air crews quickly extinguished the blaze by dumping water on it after it had burned about an acre. The lab detected no off-site releases of contamination, the news release said.

Technical Area 49 has a fixed cinderblock building with classrooms, used primarily as a training area, and a couple of metal garages, Roark said. But none were threatened by the fire, he added. Despite no lab structures being threatened, officials announced Monday
that LANL would be closed for a second day, with only essential personnel reporting to work.

Essential personnel included the lab’s guard force, Roark said.

New Mexican reporter Staci Matlock and The Associated Press contributed
to this report.

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