Los Alamos Massive Fire Tornado Threatens Los Alamos National Lab July 1, 2011

You see the rotation of the fire. Credit video of Michael Zeiler


UPDATE 1-Los Alamos scurries to protect nuclear lab from fire

* Nuclear weapons lab closes due to fire danger

* Fast-moving wildfire nears Los Alamos nuclear lab

* Los Alamos nuclear lab under siege from wildfire

* Fire has potential to double or triple in size (Recasts; adds suspected cause, details throughout)

Associated Press: P. SOLOMON BANDA & SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN - June 29, 2011

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) — A wildfire near the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb advanced on the Los Alamos laboratory and thousands of outdoor drums of plutonium-contaminated waste Tuesday as authorities stepped up efforts to protect the site and monitor the air for radiation.

Officials at the nation's premier nuclear-weapons lab gave assurances that dangerous materials were safely stored and capable of withstanding flames from the 95-square-mile fire, which at one point was as close as 50 feet from the grounds.

A small patch of land at the laboratory caught fire Monday before firefighters quickly put it out. Teams were on alert to pounce on any new blazes and spent the day removing brush and low-hanging tree limbs from the lab's perimeter.

"We are throwing absolutely everything at this that we got," Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said in Los Alamos.

The fire has forced the evacuation of the entire city of Los Alamos, population 11,000, cast giant plumes of smoke over the region and raised fears among nuclear watchdogs that it will reach as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste.

"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," said Joni Arends, executive director of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, an anti-nuclear group.

Arends' organization also worried that the fire could stir up nuclear-contaminated soil on lab property where experiments were conducted years ago. Burrowing animals have brought that contamination to the surface, she said.

Lab officials said there was very little risk of the fire reaching the drums of low-level nuclear waste, since the flames would have to jump through canyons first. Officials also stood ready to coat the drums with fire-resistant foam if the blaze got too close.

Lab spokeswoman Lisa Rosendorf said the drums contain Cold War-era waste that the lab sends away in weekly shipments for storage. She said the drums were on a paved area with few trees nearby. As of midday Tuesday, the flames were about two miles from the material.

"These drums are designed to a safety standard that would withstand a wildland fire worse than this one," Rosendorf said.

Los Alamos employs about 15,000 people, covers more than 36 square miles, includes about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites and plays a vital role in the nation's nuclear program.

The lab was created during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. It produced the weapons that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the decades since, the lab has evolved into a major scientific and nuclear research facility. It works on extending the life of aging nuclear bombs, tests warheads, produces triggers for nuclear weapons and operates supercomputers and particle accelerators.

The lab also conducts research on such things as climate change and the development of a scanner for airports to detect explosive liquids. The lab's supercomputer was used in designing an HIV vaccine.

Lab officials gave assurances that buildings housing key research and scientific facilities were safe because they have been fireproofed over the years, especially since a 2000 blaze that raged through the area but caused no damage to the lab. Trees and brush were thinned over the past several years, and key buildings were surrounded with gravel to keep flames at bay.

Many of the buildings were also constructed to meet strict standards for nuclear safety, and aggressive wildfires were taken into account, lab spokesman Kevin Roark said.

"We'll pre-treat with foam if necessary, but we really want the buildings to stand on their own for the most part. That is exactly how they've been designed. Especially the ones holding anything that is of high value or high risk," said Los Alamos County Assistant Fire Chief Mike Thompson.

Teams from the National Nuclear Security Administration's Radiological Assistance Program were headed to the scene to help assess any hazards.

Lab officials said they were closely watching at least 60 air monitors for radiation and other hazards. The New Mexico Environment Department was also monitoring the air, and Udall said he asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do the same.

The lab has been shut down because of the fire, but authorities said the disruption is unlikely to affect any key experiments. The lab will be closed at least through Wednesday.

The wildfire has destroyed 30 structures near Los Alamos, stirring memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that wrecked hundreds of homes and other buildings. About 12,500 residents in and around Los Alamos have been evacuated, an orderly exit that didn't even cause a traffic accident.

Investigators do not know what sparked the fire, although downed power lines were suspected.

The streets of Los Alamos were empty with the exception of emergency vehicles and National Guard Humvees. There were signs that homeowners had left prepared: Propane bottles were placed at the front of driveways and cars were left in the middle of parking lots, away from anything flammable.

Some residents decided to wait out the fire, including Mark Smith, a chemical engineer at Los Alamos. He said he was not worried about flames reaching the lab's sensitive materials.

"The risk of exposure is so small," he said. "I wouldn't sit here and inhale plutonium. I may be crazy, but I'm not dumb."


Reuters: Zelie Pollon - June 28, 2011

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., June 28 (Reuters) - New Mexico fire managers scrambled on Tuesday to reinforce crews battling a third day against an out-of-control blaze at the edge of one of the nation's top nuclear weapons production centers.

The fire's leading edge burned to within a few miles (kilometres) of a dump site where some 20,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste is stored at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, fire officials said.

Officials for the government-run lab said the stored waste is considered low-level radioactive material and remains a safe distance from the fire in an area cleared of trees and other vegetation.

Carl Beard, director of operations for the lab, said there has been no release of radioactive or hazardous materials into the environment and there was no immediate threat to public safety, "even in these extreme conditions."

The fire, believed to have been ignited Sunday by a fallen power line, has consumed nearly 61,000 acres (24,580 hectares) of thick, pine woodlands in the Santa Fe National Forest, which surrounds the lab complex and adjacent town of Los Alamos on three sides.

Tucker said he feared the so-called Las Conchas Fire, whipped by high, rapidly shifting winds, could soon double or triple in size.

"I seriously believe it could go to 100,000 acres (40,470 hectares)," he said at a news briefing. "We have fire all around the lab. It's a road away."

A small offshoot of the blaze jumped State Highway 4 onto the lab grounds on Monday, burning about an acre of property before it was extinguished about two hours later.


More than 300 firefighters, backed up by a fleet of seven water-dropping helicopters, battled the blaze, as fire managers scurried to bring in additional ground crews.

Lab officials also called in teams late Monday to monitor air quality, with high-volume air samplers ready to deploy. Hundreds of National Guard troops have been dispatched to back up law enforcement in the area.

Both the town of Los Alamos, home to about 10,000 residents, and the laboratory, with a work force of about 12,000 people, were evacuated on Monday, and the lab will remain closed at least through Wednesday, officials said.

Situated on a hilltop 35 miles (56 km) northwest of Santa Fe, the lab covers 36 square miles and includes about 2,000 buildings, none of which has yet burned.

Established during World War Two as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb, it remains one of the leading nuclear arms manufacturing facilities in the United States.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico said on its website its greatest concern was for the 20,000 55-gallon sealed drums of plutonium-tainted waste stored at one corner of the complex, some stacked in the open on asphalt, some in tents, some buried underground.

Fire officials say if the blaze did manage to reach the area, they would use fire-retardant foam to douse the flames. (Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton)


Fire Near Los Alamos Grows

Associated Press: JUNE 28, 2011

LOS ALAMOS, N.M.—A wildfire has swelled to more than 93 square miles in the mountains above a northern New Mexico town that is home to a government nuclear laboratory.

Firefighters worked through the night and into Tuesday hoping to put out spot fires erupting ahead of the 60,000-acre blaze.

Crews are burning some areas to rob the fire of fuel and are clearing out brush at homes on the western side of Los Alamos as a precaution.

Thousands of residents remained evacuated Tuesday, and the fire has forced the closure of Los Alamos National Laboratory for another two days.

Lab officials say all nuclear and hazardous materials, including those at the lab's principal waste-storage site, are accounted for and protected.

A crew that had been working on Arizona wildfires took over efforts at the New Mexico fire Monday, about 18 hours after the blaze started. Another firefighting team was expected to arrive Tuesday.

The wildfire has destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos. It forced the closure of the lab and, for many, stirred memories of a blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in town.

Laboratory officials said the wildfire sparked a spot fire on its property that was soon contained Monday, and no contamination was released.

The spot fire scorched a section known as Tech Area 49, which was used in the early 1960s for a series of underground tests with high explosives and radioactive materials.

The nuclear-watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the fire appeared to be about 3.5 miles from a dump site where as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste were stored in fabric tents above ground. The group said the drums were awaiting transport to a dump site in southern New Mexico.

Lab officials at first declined to confirm that such drums were on the property, but in a statement early Tuesday, lab spokeswoman Lisa Rosendorf said such drums are stored in a section of the complex known as Area G. She said the drums contain cleanup from Cold War-era waste that the lab sends away in weekly shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Flames were just across the road from the southern edge of the famed lab, where scientists developed the first atomic bomb during World War II. The facility cut natural gas to some areas overnight as a precaution.

She said the drums were on a paved area with few trees nearby and would be safe even if a fire reached the storage area. Officials have said it is miles from the flames.

"These drums are designed to a safety standard that would withstand a wildland fire worse than this one," Ms. Rosendorf said.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said environmental specialists were monitoring air quality, but the main concern was smoke.

The lab, which employs about 15,000 people, covers more than 36 square miles and includes about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites. They include research facilities, as well as waste-disposal sites. Some facilities, including the administration building, are in the community of Los Alamos, while others are several miles from the town.


Los Alamos lab prepares to reopen as fire threat eases

Reuters: July 2, 2011

The Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory has ended a state of emergency and was taking small steps on Saturday toward reopening as the threat from a record New Mexico wildfire subsided.

But highlighting the need for continued vigilance, a squirrel sparked a small blaze on lab property on Saturday when it touched a transformer. That fire, which measured about an acre, was quickly extinguished, the lab said in a statement.

Officials have yet to set any reopening date for Los Alamos, but with the risk to the laboratory and adjacent town mostly passed, lab director Charles McMillan said employees were slowly being prepared for reopening the lab.

"We've assessed the risk to the lab to be lower so we've changed the status based on that assessment," McMillan told a news conference.

The Las Conchas Fire consumed an additional 9,000 acres on Friday, and now stands at 113,734 acres, burning primarily toward the north, and further onto the western flank and into the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

A firefighting force of 1,600 people working to douse the flames has now managed to carve containment lines around 6 percent of the fire's perimeter on its eastern and southern flanks, keeping the blaze from invading the lab complex.

Now ranked as the largest wild-lands blaze ever in New Mexico, the fire surpasses the previous record set in 2003 by the 94,000-acre Dry Lakes Fire in the Gila National Forest.

By comparison, the largest blaze in Arizona, the Wallow Fire, has blackened well over 500,000 acres since it erupted May 29 of this year. It is still burning.

At one point earlier this week, the fire's edge was reported just 2 miles from a collection of about 20,000 metal drums containing plutonium-contaminated clothing and other waste stored on a corner of the 36-square-mile lab property.

Nuclear watchdog groups and some citizens had raised concerns about the fire possibly unleashing residual ground contamination left from decades of experimental explosions and waste disposal in the area.


The first employees to return to the Los Alamos lab, one of the nation's top nuclear arms production facilities, would be checking on the facilities, including air handling systems to be sure there was no clogging from the smoke, and bringing IT systems back on line, McMillan said.

A lab spokesman, Kevin Roark, said select employees would start returning on Saturday and that process would continue throughout the week.

McMillan said the status change at the lab would allow resources to be moved away from Los Alamos to focus on other areas, particularly in the north of the state where the fire continues to grow.

Officials have set no time for lifting evacuation orders for the town of Los Alamos, whose 10,000 residents fled earlier this week. Thick smoke lingered over the area.

On Thursday, the blaze had encroached on an Indian reservation to the north, the Santa Clara Pueblo, burning at least 6,000 acres of tribal land, including a number of sacred sites.

But the leading western edge of the blaze remained about 6 miles from the nearest populated areas of the pueblo on Friday, fire officials said at the time.

Firefighters on Saturday were conducting burnout operations to protect cultural and historical sites near the reservation, and archeologists were working with fire crews to minimize damage to sensitive areas, fire information officials said.

Thunderstorms and gusty winds expected on Saturday could spark new blazes or pose a hazard to firefighters, while downdrafts could help the fire spread, they added.

About 150 miles to the south, a separate wildfire caused by lightning blazed in and around the Mescalero Apache Reservation. By Friday morning, the Donaldson Complex Fire had burned some 90,000 acres, including several thousand acres on tribal land, but was 30 percent contained on Saturday, authorities said.