Initial tests of smoke from the Las Conchas Fire show no evidence of contamination from Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear operations, the lab’s director said during a noon news conference Wednesday.
“What we see in this fire is exactly what we see in any other fire in New Mexico,” Charles McMillan told reporters.
Ray Guilmette, an expert in radiation inhalation risks at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute in Albuquerque, said widespread fear of lab radiation in the fire’s smoke are unfounded.
The dangers from the Los Alamos smoke are exactly the same as those from the Wallow Fire, which settled across northern New Mexico earlier this month and had residents scurrying indoors, closing their windows and shutting off their swamp coolers.
Inhaling smoke can be dangerous, but there is no difference between Los Alamos fire smoke and smoke from any other blaze, according to Guilmette. “It’s exactly the same,” he said.
The fire’s approach to the lab and its nuclear materials, especially tens of thousands of radioactive waste drums stored above ground, has drawn national attention to the fire.
Federal officials, aware of the fears, deployed an Environmental Protection Agency air sampling plane to the fire area Wednesday to collect samples, bolstering a network of 90 ground-based stations in and around the lab.
Lab officials and firefighters Wednesday reiterated their confidence that they could keep the fire away from the radioactive waste drums and said that, even if it did reach them, lab officials have taken sufficient precautions to prevent disaster.
Those include a large cleared area around the drums, the fact that the drums are fire resistant and that fire-retardant foam is at the ready to smother the drums if the blaze reaches them.
McMillan said the initial data came from “high volume” air samplers that allow data to be collected quickly. The results came from an in-house team at Los Alamos, but a sample has also been sent to an independent lab to confirm the finding.
Independent samples are important to confirm the lab’s findings, according to officials with the New Mexico Environment Department.
That department has installed nine radiation monitoring stations around northern New Mexico to detect any radiation coming from Los Alamos and the fire.
The devices were installed in conjunction with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said Rita Bates, planning section chief for the department’s air quality bureau.
“We also did this monitoring during the Cerro Grande Fire, and there were no impacts and we expect it to be the same this time, but we do want to be proactive,” she said. If some canyons around the lab did burn, she added, “we do have some concerns about contamination from radiation.”
The monitors are located in Santa Fe, Taos, Española, Dixon, Nambé, Embudo, Abiquiu and Pojoaque, she said. In Santa Fe, the monitor is at the Runnels Building at St. Francis Drive and Alta Vista. In Taos, the monitors are at Taos Fire Station Number 2 and at Holy Cross Hospital.
There has been a air quality station in Taos for years to measure particulate matter from smoke, said Bates. “We have seen more impact (from smoke) in Taos than Santa Fe,” she said. The readings for Taos have been in the moderate but not yet unhealthy range, she added.
Freelance reporter Andy Stiny in Taos contributed to this story.