Monday, June 27, 2011

Los Conchas fire nears Los Alamos Natl. Lab.

As of a 12:00 p.m. MDT press conference near Los Alamos, N.M., the Los Conchas fire that threatens the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico still had not crossed over into lab property, though it was getting close.

[Timelapse video of the Las Conchas Fire near Los Alamos National Laboratory, filmed June 26. Video by Michael Zeiler.]

"Our priority is to protect this national asset," a lab spokesman said during the press conference streamed live on the web by local TV stations.

"If [the fire] spots on the lab," a Los Alamos County fire department spokesman said, "we'll get really aggressive about putting it out." During a helicopter ride this morning, the spokesman had seen the fire burning near state highway 4 - part of the lab's southern border - and guessed that the fire was a mere 50 feet from lab property.

The lab was closed Sunday night to all non-essential personnel and will be closed until "TBD" according to the lab's spokesman. The lab activated its emergency operations center on Sunday night and voluntary evacuations of the surrounding areas are also underway.

In May 2000, a similar fire, the Cerro Grande fire, caused damage to lab buildings and employees' homes, requiring the lab to be closed for two weeks. The lab has since added a lot of fire protection including thinning out brush on the property and better alarm systems.

The 2000 fire sparked concerns of radioactive smoke and toxic runoff, concerns that have been raised again in the last few days. Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said no contaminants were released in the Cerro Grande fire, according to the Houston Chronicle, and that environmental specialists from the lab monitoring the air quality.

Roark also told LiveScience sister site Life's Little Mysteries that precautions had been taken to protect lab assets from the fire. "The radioactive materials and supercomputers are locked away in vaults deep inside buildings that are constructed of cinder block," Roark said to Life's Little Mysteries.

[Aerial view of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Photo credit: U.S. Dept. of Energy.]

Still, some people - like those from the anti-nuclear Los Alamos Study Group - worry that the local fire authorities are unprepared to handle a fire disaster involving radioactive hazards, according to the Chronicle article.

The Los Alamos fire department spokesman said that the fire is moving and they are not sure what will happen next. "This is mother nature at her best," he said.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, once a secret lab, is where the world's first nuclear weapons were developed during World War II. During the Cold War, the lab competed with another U.S. lab - Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory - to design nuclear weapons as well as work on other more traditional research like particle accelerator development and medicine.

Today, both labs have toned down their research on nuclear weapons development and are focused more on nuclear testing through computer simulations and on nuclear weapons stockpiles. Researchers at Los Alamos are also working on creating an AIDs vaccine and on developing biofuels.

For a live look at the fire, check out the Pajarito Mountain Ski Area live web cam, about five miles west of the Los Alamos lab.

PhysicsBuzz and the PhysicsCentral team wish the best for those working at the Los Alamos lab and for everyone affected by the Los Conchas fire.

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