World

Los Alamos wildfire raises nuclear worries

A wildfire burning 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.
A wildfire burns near Los Alamos, N.M., on Tuesday. Thousands of residents calmly fled the town that's home to a nuclear laboratory ahead of an approaching wildfire. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

A wildfire burning 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 from flames and monitor the air for radiation.

Officials at the United States' premier nuclear weapons lab gave assurances that dangerous materials were safely stored and capable of withstanding flames from the 24,000-hectare fire, which as of midday was as close as 45 metres from the grounds.

A small patch of land on the laboratory grounds caught fire Monday before firefighters quickly put it out. Teams were on high 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 11,000-member population of Los Alamos, cast giant plumes of smoke over the region and raised fears among nuclear watchdogs that it will reach as many as 30,000 210-litre 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.

Arends' group also worried that the fire could stir up nuclear-contaminated soil on lab property where experiments were conducted years ago. Over the years, 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 three kilometres away from the material.

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

Investigators do not know what sparked the fire, although suspicion has fallen on downed power lines.