* Nuclear weapons lab closes due to fire danger
* Fire has potential to double or triple in size
(Updates the number of firefighters, paragraph 12)
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 top U.S. nuclear weapons production centers.
The fire's leading edge burned to within a few miles of a
dump site where some 20,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated
waste, including clothing and equipment, 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."
Established during World War Two as part of the top-secret
Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb, the lab
remains one of the leading nuclear arms manufacturing
facilities in the United States.
Authorities have suspended routine removal of the waste
drums for shipment to a permanent underground disposal site in
southern New Mexico, said Los Alamos County Fire Chief Douglas
"Because of the fire, they are not moving any of that. It
is safer where it is," he said.
The fire, believed to have been ignited on Sunday by a
fallen power line, has consumed nearly 61,000 acres (25,000
hectares) of thick pine woodlands in the Santa Fe National
Forest, which surrounds the lab complex and adjacent town of
Los Alamos on three sides.
Tucker said he feared the so-called Las Conchas Fire,
whipped by high, rapidly shifting winds, could soon double or
triple in size. The blaze remained listed as at zero percent
containment and burning largely unchecked in its third day.
"I seriously believe it could go to 100,000 acres (40,000
hectares)," Tucker told reporters at a news briefing on
Tuesday. "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 (0.4 hectare)
of property before it was extinguished about two hours later.
Between 800 and 1,000 firefighters, backed up by several
water-dropping helicopters, were battling the blaze on Tuesday
"We've been putting in orders to get as many firefighters
here as we can," fire information officer Vanessa Delgado said.
"We're trying to get them in as fast as we can."
Lab officials also called in teams late on 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 (55 km) northwest of Santa
Fe, the lab property covers 23,000 acres (9,300 hectares) and
includes about 2,000 buildings, none of which has yet burned.
John Witham, a spokesman for the anti-nuclear group Nuclear
Watch New Mexico, said it is the only place in the country that
produces plutonium pits that are carried in the core of nuclear
Three metric tons of highly radioactive weapons-grade
plutonium is stored in concrete and steel vaults in the
basement floor of a building near the center of the complex,
with an air-containment system surrounding it, Witham said.
Lab officials said the storage structures were fire safe.
Nuclear Watch New Mexico said on its website its greatest
concern was for the 20,000 55-gallon (200-litre) 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 they would use fire-retardant foam to
douse the flames if the blaze reached the area.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Jerry Norton and Mohammad