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).