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New Mexico's Los Alamos Fire At 'Make Or Break' Point

Fire

First Posted: 06/28/11 06:38 PM ET Updated: 08/28/11 06:12 AM ET

LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico (AP) -- Fire managers say it's a "make or break day" Tuesday for ensuring flames from a wildfire don't race into a northern New Mexico town that is home to a government nuclear laboratory that stores sensitive materials.

The wildfire -- which has swelled to about 93 square miles (240 sq. kilometers) -- sparked a spot fire at the Los Alamos National Laboratory on Monday. The fire was quickly contained, and lab officials said no contamination was released and radioactive materials stored at spots on the sprawling lab were safe.

Lab officials and fire managers said they're confident the flames won't reach key buildings or areas where radioactive waste is stored in barrels above ground.

For the stored waste, officials say a last resort would include spraying foam on the barrels to ensure they aren't damaged by fire.

Teams from the National Nuclear Security Administration's Radiological Assistance Program were headed to the scene to help assess any nuclear or radiological hazards, said Kevin Smith, Los Alamos Site Office manager.

"The ... teams' work will provide another level of assurance that the community is safe from potential radiological releases as the fire progresses," Smith said in a statement.

The lab will be closed through at least Wednesday, with only essential employees permitted back onto laboratory property.

The wildfire has destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos, for many stirring memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in town. About 12,500 residents have been evacuated from Los Alamos, an orderly exit that didn't even cause a traffic accident.

Flames were just across the road from the southern edge of the famed lab, where scientists developed the first atomic bomb during World War II. The facility cut natural gas to some areas as a precaution.

The lab, which employs about 15,000 people, covers more than 36 square miles (93 sq. kilometers) and includes about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites. They include research facilities, as well as waste disposal sites. Some facilities, including the administration building, are in the community of Los Alamos, while others are several miles away from the town.

The spot fire scorched a section known as Tech Area 49, which was used in the early 1960s for a series of underground tests with high explosives and radioactive materials.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said environmental specialists were monitoring air quality, but the main concern was smoke.

The anti-nuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the fire appeared to be about 3.5 miles (6 kilometers) from a dumpsite where as many as 30,000 55-gallon (208-liter) drums of plutonium-contaminated waste were stored in fabric tents above ground. The group said the drums were awaiting transport to a dump site in southern New Mexico.

Lab officials at first declined to confirm that such drums were on the property, but in a statement early Tuesday, lab spokeswoman Lisa Rosendorf said such drums are stored in a section of the complex known as Area G. She said the drums contain cleanup from Cold War-era waste that the lab sends away in weekly shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

She said the drums were on a paved area with few trees nearby and would be safe even if a fire reached the storage area. Officials have said it is miles from the flames.

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Associated Press writers Bryan and Jeri Clausing in Albuquerque, Barry Massey in Santa Fe and Mark Carlson in Phoenix contributed.

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Filed by Ryan Grenoble  |