Where there's smoke…

By Daniel Holz | June 30, 2011 11:38 pm

It turns out the Los Alamos fires are world news, even making it to the front page of the BBC online (right next to the Duke and Duchess visiting Canada). Who knew? I guess everyone’s really worried that my theory of quantum gravity, which is of course sitting in my desk drawer at work, might go up in flames. My office is just below and to the left of the green glass building in this photo:

Or perhaps the world is genuinely concerned that a lab of historic significance might burn? Or maybe, and I’m going out on a limb here, everyone’s worried that the lab’s nuclear material might catch fire? A quick sanity check is in order. Most of the seriously radioactive material is in “hardened” bunkers at the lab. These are built to repel terrorist attacks and the like. They are surrounded by large buffer zones, and it would be difficult for a forest fire to get close, much less around/over the bunker, since there’s nothing flammable nearby. And, needless to say, massive slurry drops from the air would also discourage the fire from even thinking about approaching. And even if the fire did somehow surround the structure, my understanding is that the facility would survive virtually unscathed. So this material is probably safe.

In addition to the stores of radioactive material, however, there is also waste consisting of items such as gloves and the like with trace amounts of radioactive contamination (much of it left over from the cold war). This stuff is stored in 55-gallon barrels in “Area G“, which is only ~10 km from the lab boundary (which presently constitutes the edge of the fire). The barrels are being systematically transported to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Southern New Mexico. However, there are still thousands of barrels left on lab property, and this stuff isn’t housed in the same bomb-proof bunkers as the high-level radioactive material. So if the fire were to get to this material, and somehow compromise one of the barrels (which are supposed to be fire proof), it could conceivably incinerate some of the contents and generate radioactive smoke. Although highly unlikely and not an unmitigated disaster, this is nonetheless something to be avoided if at all possible. The barrels are stored on pavement surrounded by a large area which has been completely denuded of vegetation (partially because of the previous fire, and partly because of lessons learned from the previous fire). There is very little to burn in the immediate surroundings, and the fire would have to jump some canyons to get to the barrels. And, again, the potential intervention of helicopters and airplane drops of fire retardant material make it even less likely that anything could go amiss. So the general feeling is that Area G is also safe. Over the last few days the lab has been doing a remarkable job of keeping everyone apprised as to what’s happening (e.g., twitter, flicker, website; also see links in my previous post [and comments])

But, perhaps most importantly, it seems like fire fighters have gotten the upper hand over the last day or two, and the area around the laboratory and town seems to be relatively secure. Extensive fire breaks have been built, with back burns helping to clear out potential underbrush and ensure an appropriate buffer. And, in the latest positive development, this evening we had some fairly spectacular thunderstorms and rain. One side effect is that the smoke has completely dissipated, and from my living room (in Santa Fe) we now have a clear view across the Rio Grande valley to the Jemez mountains above Los Alamos. After two weeks of hearing about the fires, and seeing the smoke, now for the first time we can actually see the flames themselves. This came as quite a shock. It is a scary but strangely beautiful sight (from ~30 miles away).

  • Mark

    Hope all is resolved with minimal damage and no casualties; visited NM last fall, spent a couple hours in Los Alamos. While there I ate green chile cream cheese for the first time at Ruby K’s, so Los Alamos will always hold a special place in my heart. A beautiful land

  • DaveR

    “I’m going out on a limb here, everyone’s worried that the lab’s nuclear material might catch fire? *A quick sanity check is in order.* Most of the seriously radioactive material is in “hardened” bunkers at the lab.”
    To even have to worry about nuclear material is INSANE. To be creating such materials is INSANE ! For some strange ill-reason, humans seem to think that the ability to create such substances shows that they are advanced. Los Alamos and the whole nuclear industry needs to be shut down before anyone can speak of a “SANITY CHECK”
    Beam me up, Scotty.

  • Ryan

    It’s just sensationalism. For the next few years anything remotely related to nuclear power is going to be reported. The other day I clicked a link that said “RADIATION FOUND IN ALL TESTED FUKUSHIMA RESIDENTS”, with the actual article content being that no one actually tested in the danger range for the cesium isotope they’re looking for.

    Same deal with the Nebraska flood thing. No actual danger, tons of press.

  • http://opines.mythusmage.org Alan Kellogg

    You forgot the ultimate peril in situations such as this, nervous nellies (NNs). NNs get to bellowing and the next thing you know, you’re forced to transport radioactive materials through storm and fire and the end of the world in cardboard containers because everything else has been banned for one reason or another.

    The good news is, your boss has been replaced by an A list actor, and you have been replaced by an A list actress.

  • Anchor

    “I guess everyone’s really worried that my theory of quantum gravity, which is of course sitting in my desk drawer at work, might go up in flames.”

    If you aren’t worried about it there wouldn’t be much reason to suppose we should be. But now that we all know about the existence of such a work, it is painful to learn we may be deprived of some excellent insight. Surely you have copies of it lurking around elsewhere besides in a “desk drawer” threatened by fire. 😉

  • melinmelin

    I worked with a man who was a maintenance man at Los Alamos. He said that, in the 1980s-90s, they used to ditch radioactive tractors and other machinery and materials in the canyons there. This is what worries me. The protected and closely guarded material is obviously not a problem. The lack of accountablilty and laissez-faire attitude of many employees there is a huge problem.

  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Douglas Watts

    It is odd that a post about a laboratory built to test and construct bombs designed to destroy the entire planet, which is now threatened by forest fire, ends with:

    “So this material is probably safe.”

  • thomas

    Activists should stick to social issues like racism and gay marriage and stay out engineering discussions. It’s quite clear that the activists don’t know what they’re talking about, for that matter don’t care, and even if they did care, nuclear physics is too complicated for activism.

  • Anchor

    thomas #8: HAHAHAhahaha….

    Oh yes. Beware of those who practice ‘activism’. Why, I imagine they could wreck the entire world.

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