NM fire poised to be largest in state history

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The lab also 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 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.

Meanwhile, the economic impact of shutting down the town was already weighing on the minds of Los Alamos officials and business owners.

The lab’s employees account for up to 90 percent of the town’s commerce, said Kevin Holsapple, executive director of the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, as well as the local economic development group.

Holsapple did not have an estimate on what the impact would be from the latest fire.

Following a major wildfire in May 2000, the federal government paid out tens of millions to hundreds of businesses to compensate for financial and property loss.

“Lightning is not supposed to strike twice in one place,” Holsapple said of the second town evacuation in a little over 11 years. “Their preparation in general is better that you would find because of people’s experience with this kind of thing.”

This time around, that federal government help isn’t available.

Gov. Susana Martinez said the state is helping by delaying collection of sales taxes from business affected by the fire.

Other measures being offered to Los Alamos businesses by Holsapple’s groups include making interest payments for business loans, as well as support to help business restart.

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