Another day, another natural disaster that should have the world in a massive panic but somehow gets downplayed.
The continuing wildfires in the Southwest are now threatening a nuclear power plant. And somehow, the word “calm” is still being used.
Thousands of residents calmly fled Monday from the mesa-top town that’s home to the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, ahead of an approaching wildfire that sent up towering plumes of smoke, rained down ash and sparked a spot fire on lab property where scientists 50 years ago conducted underground tests of radioactive explosives.
Los Alamos National Laboratory officials said that the spot fire was soon contained and no contamination was released. They also assured that radioactive materials stored in various spots elsewhere on the sprawling lab were safe from flames.
The wildfire, which began Sunday, had destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos by early Monday and forced the closure of the lab while stirring memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings.
“The hair on the back of your neck goes up,” Los Alamos County fire chief Doug Tucker said of first seeing the fire in the Santa Fe National Forest on Sunday. “I saw that plume and I thought, `Oh my God here we go again.'”
Tucker said the current blaze – which grew Monday to roughly 50,000 acres, or 78 square miles – was the most active fire he had seen in his career. By midafternoon, it had jumped a highway and burned an acre of land on the outskirts of the lab’s 36-square mile complex.
The fire scorched a section of what is known as the Tech Area, 49, which was used in the early 1960s for a series of underground tests with high explosives and radioactive materials. Lab officials said the fire was safely extinguished.
Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said environmental specialists from the lab were mobilized and monitoring air quality on Monday, but that the main concern was smoke.
The anti-nuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, however, said the fire appeared to be about 3 1/2 miles from a dumpsite where as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste were stored in fabric tents above ground. The group said the drums were awaiting transport to a low-level radiation dump site in southern New Mexico.
Lab spokesman Steve Sandoval declined to confirm that there were any such drums currently on the property. He acknowledged that low-level waste is at times put in drums and regularly taken from the lab to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project site in Carlsbad.
Sandoval said the fire was “quite a bit away” from that storage area. But he could not say what would happen if drums containing such waste were to burn.
“Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question other than to say that the material is well protected. And the lab – knowing that it works with hazardous and nuclear materials – takes great pains to make sure it is protected and locked in concrete steel vaults. And the fire poses very little threat to them.”
Yup. It’s almost 2012…
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