- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2011

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) - Los Alamos nuclear laboratory officials say it could be a few days before they’ll know the extent of how experiments at the facility that created the first atomic bomb have been affected by a shutdown caused by a 125-square mile wildfire.

Lab Director Charles McMillan, who last month took over management of the lab that sits atop desert mesas, said Wednesday that teams will quickly figure out how things stand as soon as they’re able to return.

The lab has been shut down since Monday, when all of the city of Los Alamos and some of its surrounding areas _ 12,000 people in all _ was evacuated.

There was no word on when it will reopen, but it was expected to remain idle at least through Friday.

Officials said the Los Alamos National Laboratory has some 10,000 experiments running at the same time that have been put on hold.

“We have a range of projects, some of them have shorter time deliverable, some of them are years to decades,” McMillan said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Among the work delayed are experiments run on two supercomputers, the Roadrunner and Cielo. The National Security Administration’s three national laboratories _ Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore _ all share computing time on Cielo, which is among the world’s fastest computers.

Also delayed is work on projects ranging from extending the life of 1960s era B61 nuclear bombs to studies on how climate change affects ocean currents. The computer allows scientist to look at different scenarios, including changes in currents and the melting of the ice caps.

Fire officials late Wednesday said they’re confident that the fire won’t spread onto the lab and the town of Los Alamos. Firefighters burned out brush to create a 10-mile long burned out area between the fire and the lab.

“It’s looking good right now,” Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said. The fire grew to 125 square miles, with most of the growth happening north of the lab. Firefighters were bracing for wind gusts of up to 45 miles forecast for Thursday.

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 described the monitoring from the air as a precaution, and they, along with outside experts on nuclear engineering, expressed confidence that the blaze would not scatter radioactive material, as some in surrounding communities feared.

“The nuclear materials are secure,” said Penn State University nuclear engineering professor Barry Scheetz, who has served on National Academy of Sciences nuclear review boards and has been to Los Alamos several times. “There’s multiple redundancy in the protection of this material.”

Anti-nuclear groups have sounded the alarm about thousands of 55-gallon drums containing low-grade nuclear waste _ gloves, tools, even paper notes and other contaminated items _ about two miles from the fire. Lab officials said it was highly unlikely the blaze would reach the drums, and that the steel containers can in any case withstand flames and will be sprayed with fire-resistant foam if necessary.

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.

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