New Mexico aims to protect US nuclear lab from fire

Tue Jun 28, 2011 2:00pm EDT

Related Topics

* Nuclear weapons lab closes due to fire danger

* Fire has potential to double or triple in size

By Zelie Pollon

SANTA FE, N.M., June 28 (Reuters) - New Mexico officials raced on Tuesday to bring in more fire crews and equipment including radiation monitors as an out-of-control wildfire raged near the preeminent U.S. nuclear weapons laboratory.

Firefighters managed to keep flames off Los Alamos National Laboratory property throughout the night on Monday as the blaze continued to grow, reaching 60,741 acres (24,580 hectares), said Lawrence Lujan, a spokesman for the Santa Fe National Forest.

The laboratory will remain closed on Tuesday and Wednesday due to fire danger, lab spokesman Kevin Roark told Reuters.

Fire officials said the so-called Las Conchas blaze had the potential to double or triple in size. Several towns are under mandatory evacuation, including the nearby city of Los Alamos, with a population of around 12,000.

Los Alamos National Laboratory was established at the end of World War II to house the top secret Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. It still serves as home to the nation's largest nuclear weapons cache.

Situated on a hilltop, 35 miles (56 km) northeast of Santa Fe, lab property covers 36 square miles (38 square km). Today the lab employees nearly 12,000 people in a range of research and development areas.

Los Alamos lab officials called in teams late on Monday to monitor its air quality, including a broad spectrum of radiation, and have high-volume air samplers ready to deploy.

Roark said that no lab facilities faced immediate threat and all radioactive and hazardous materials were accounted for and protected. The closest call was when Monday's spot fire burned an area called TA 49, which has been headquarters of the lab's bomb squad and training facilities for its hazardous materials response team. The fire was quickly put out.

According to its website, more than half of the lab's work relates to weapons programs, with other areas covering nonproliferation programs, security and environmental management. (Editing by Karen Brooks and Peter Bohan)

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