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Smoke Biggest Health Concern, Not Nukes

The director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Charles McMillan, talks about the safety procedures that are being used at the lab and the monitoring of the air on Tuesday. (Jim Thompson/Journal)
The director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Charles McMillan, talks about the safety procedures that are being used at the lab and the monitoring of the air on Tuesday. (Jim Thompson/Journal)
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Ordinary forest fire smoke, not contamination from nuclear weapons work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is the biggest health threat as the Las Conchas Fire burns along the lab’s southern and western boundaries, a top state regulator said Tuesday.

And lab officials said chances are extremely low of the fire reaching stored nuclear waste on the lab property, a concern raised by anti-nuclear groups.

A small blaze burned briefly on a remote lab area Monday afternoon, but that spot fire was quickly extinguished, and fire has not re-entered lab property, officials said Tuesday.

“The biggest concern is for the smoke particles themselves, rather than any chemical components from Los Alamos lab activities,” said Tom Skibitski, head of the New Mexico Environment Department team that monitors lab environmental issues.

Skibitski, speaking at a Tuesday afternoon news conference, sought to calm public concern that has been raised by the proximity of the fire to the lab’s nuclear materials and radioactive waste.

State and federal officials Tuesday announced an air testing blitz, including air sampling overflights by an Environmental Protection Agency plane set to begin today.

Skibitski said tests of smoke as the Cerro Grande Fire burned across similar terrain on and adjacent to the lab in May 2000 showed that it was not significantly different from other forest fires.

In addition to Los Alamos National Laboratory’s network of 60 air-monitoring stations, the state, EPA and other outside agencies will have another 30 air-monitoring stations up and running, he said.

Lab and firefighting officials also said Tuesday there was little risk of fire at the lab’s Area G radioactive waste storage site, where more than 10,000 radioactive waste drums are in temporary above-ground storage.

The chance of fire reaching Area G is low, Los Alamos fire chief Doug Tucker said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference. And even if the flames do approach, the waste is stored in an area cleared of vegetation and protected by fire teams, officials said.

One of the leading Los Alamos National Laboratory anti-nuclear activists said that, while the danger would be high if the waste area burned, he agreed that the chances of that happening are small.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Lab officials said they considered worst-case scenarios in evaluating risks and took additional precautions in the years since the Cerro Grande Fire to ensure that the waste can be protected from fire.

Tucker said there is no chance of the fire “running” – moving through three miles of woods between the fire lines and the waste area. The only alternative is a “spot” fire triggered by wind-blown embers, but lab officials noted that the waste area has already been cleared of vegetation and flammable material that might be sparked.

If the fire were to somehow get to the waste, the waste drums are fire resistant and firefighters are equipped with fire-suppression foam that would be used to smother the waste, said lab spokesman Kevin Roark.

“I don’t see this as an issue,” Tucker said.
— This article appeared on page A4 of the Albuquerque Journal

Photo Credit – JIM THOMPSON/JOURNAL
Cutline – The director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Charles McMillan, talks about the safety procedures that are being used at the lab and the monitoring of the air on Tuesday.

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