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Fire near NM nuclear lab largest in state history
“The impact to our pueblos is unprecedented,” said U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M.
In Los Alamos, crews continued to work Friday at the bottom of Los Alamos Canyon. Fire Chief Doug Tucker said the area that was burning previously was thinned, providing a safe area for firefighters to attack the flames.
Los Alamos Canyon runs past runs past the old Manhattan Project site in town and a 1940s-era dump site where workers are near the end of a cleanup project of low-level radioactive waste. The World War II Manhattan Project developed the first atomic bomb, and workers from the era dumped hazardous and radioactive waste in trenches along six acres atop the mesa where the town sits.
The canyon also runs through town and a portion of the northern end of the lab, where a weapons research nuclear reactor was located until it was demolished in 2003.
The fire burned upslope at least three miles from the sites and didn’t pose an immediate threat. Fire had crept to within a half-mile of homes in town.
“We feel quite confident. In fact, we feel extremely confident that the situation is well in hand with respect to protecting our facilities, protecting the equipment and the material that exists on this property,” said Tom D'Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the lab.
D'Agostino toured some of the burned area Friday. What was so striking, he said was the “grit and determination” of the people working to protect the area.
“We don’t let our guard down for one second because we know how vitally important it is to keep on top of this problem,” he said.
The lab has been closed since Monday, when the town of Los Alamos and some of its surrounding areas _ 12,000 people in all _ were evacuated. There was no word on when it would reopen or when residents would be allowed back home.
Officials said the lab has some 10,000 experiments running at the same time that have been put on hold. Those include studies on materials needed to extend the life of 1960s-era B61 nuclear bombs as well as experiments run on two supercomputers.
The lab works on such topics as renewable energy and particle physics, solar flares, forensics on terrorist attacks, and studying the AIDS virus at the molecular level to help scientists develop strategies for developing vaccines.
On Monday, about an acre of lab property burned, raising concerns about possible contamination from material stored or buried on lab grounds. As a precaution, the government sent a plane equipped with radiation monitors over the lab. Samples analyzed so far from some of the lab’s monitors show nothing abnormal in the smoke.
Lab authorities, along with outside experts on nuclear engineering, expressed confidence that the blaze would not scatter radioactive material, as some in surrounding communities feared.
Macdonald said there was hope that crews would be able to gain on the fire since it was close to two large burn scars left by previous fires.
“We’ve got a window of opportunity to get out ahead of it,” he said.
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