Los Alamos Fire: Why Nuclear Waste Is Probably Safe

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

A key barrier between the New Mexico wildfire that started several days ago and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a road which has been cleared of trees and debris, has held. That has so far prevented the spread of the fire toward the lab, which sits on the eastern side of the blaze. That was the word today from Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker during a briefing of reporters. Only 3% of the fire has been officially contained, Tucker said, but winds are blowing the fire west, away from the lab.

While the edge of the fire is only a few dozen meters from the edge of the lab's property, it is roughly 13 km from the most sensitive location, the so-called "Area G." That site is a 63-acre storage facility where thousands of drums of nuclear waste sit, many of which are outdoors.

But between the fire and that site is the remnants of a forest that was largely burned during a horrific 2000 fire on lab property. That fire burned "90%" of the flammable material from the west side of the lab, says Los Alamos retiree Charles Mansfield, who worked as a physicist at the lab for 17 years and also as a forest firefighter, a so-called smokejumper, for 11 years. Mansfield says he's "not very concerned" about the fire reaching spreading east to Area G.

"It would be very difficult for the fire to get that far," he says. Sometimes embers in a hotly burning fire can be lofted as much as 4 miles to start so-called "spot fires." But this requires a forest burning completely, from the ground to the high branches, he says. The area of forest close enough to have a chance to create the heat and updrafts required to bring the blaze to Area G has already burned, Mansfield contends. That would mean that the grass and brush required to get the trees on fire is gone.

A 1-acre fire that started when embers landed in a remote area of the lab that is used for explosives testing is the only instance of the 70,000 acre blaze reaching the sprawling laboratory grounds. The lab, which has been closed since Monday, will remain closed tomorrow and possibly Friday.

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