* Nuclear weapons lab closes due to fire danger
* Fire has potential to double or triple in size
(Recasts; adds suspected cause, details throughout)
By Zelie Pollon
LOS ALAMOS, N.M., June 28 New Mexico fire
managers scrambled on Tuesday to reinforce crews battling a
third day against an out-of-control blaze at the edge of one of
the nation's top nuclear weapons production centers.
The fire's leading edge burned to within a few miles
(kilometres) of a dump site where some 20,000 barrels of
plutonium-contaminated waste is stored at the Los Alamos
National Laboratory, fire officials said.
Officials for the government-run lab said the stored waste
is considered low-level radioactive material and remains a safe
distance from the fire in an area cleared of trees and other
Carl Beard, director of operations for the lab, said there
has been no release of radioactive or hazardous materials into
the environment and there was no immediate threat to public
safety, "even in these extreme conditions."
The fire, believed to have been ignited Sunday by a fallen
power line, has consumed nearly 61,000 acres (24,580 hectares)
of thick, pine woodlands in the Santa Fe National Forest, which
surrounds the lab complex and adjacent town of Los Alamos on
Tucker said he feared the so-called Las Conchas Fire,
whipped by high, rapidly shifting winds, could soon double or
triple in size.
"I seriously believe it could go to 100,000 acres (40,470
hectares)," he said at a news briefing. "We have fire all
around the lab. It's a road away."
A small offshoot of the blaze jumped State Highway 4 onto
the lab grounds on Monday, burning about an acre of property
before it was extinguished about two hours later.
MONITORING AIR QUALITY
More than 300 firefighters, backed up by a fleet of seven
water-dropping helicopters, battled the blaze, as fire managers
scurried to bring in additional ground crews.
Lab officials also called in teams late Monday to monitor
air quality, with high-volume air samplers ready to deploy.
Hundreds of National Guard troops have been dispatched to back
up law enforcement in the area.
Both the town of Los Alamos, home to about 10,000
residents, and the laboratory, with a work force of about
12,000 people, were evacuated on Monday, and the lab will
remain closed at least through Wednesday, officials said.
Situated on a hilltop 35 miles (56 km) northwest of Santa
Fe, the lab covers 36 square miles and includes about 2,000
buildings, none of which has yet burned.
Established during World War Two as part of the top-secret
Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb, it remains
one of the leading nuclear arms manufacturing facilities in the
Nuclear Watch New Mexico said on its website its greatest
concern was for the 20,000 55-gallon sealed drums of
plutonium-tainted waste stored at one corner of the complex,
some stacked in the open on asphalt, some in tents, some buried
Fire officials say if the blaze did manage to reach the
area, they would use fire-retardant foam to douse the flames.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Jerry Norton)