Saturday 10 December 2016

Thousands flee as huge fire moves closer to nuclear lab

Susan Montoya Bryan in Los Alamos

Published 29/06/2011 | 05:00

Flames from the Las Conchas fire in the hills above Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear facility, on Monday
Flames from the Las Conchas fire in the hills above Los Alamos National Laboratory, a nuclear facility, on Monday

THOUSANDS of residents have fled from the town that is home to the United States' Los Alamos nuclear laboratory as a raging wildfire sent up towering plumes of smoke.

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Firefighters battled the vicious wildfire that was spreading through the mountains above the northern New Mexico town, which is home to a government nuclear laboratory.

Thousands of people were driven from their homes, and officials at the Los Alamos National Laboratory tried to dispel concerns about the safety of sensitive materials.

The wildfire -- which has swelled to about 240sq km -- sparked a spot fire at the Los Alamos laboratory on Monday.

The fire was quickly contained, and lab officials said no contamination was released and radioactive materials stored at spots on the sprawling lab were safe.

No fires burned on lab property overnight, but teams from the National Nuclear Security Administration's Radiological Assistance Program were headed to the scene to help assess any nuclear or radiological hazards, said Kevin Smith, Los Alamos Site Office manager.

Community

"The teams' work will provide another level of assurance that the community is safe from potential radiological releases as the fire progresses," Mr Smith said in a statement.

The lab will be closed until at least today, with only essential employees permitted back on to laboratory property.

The wildfire has destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos, for many stirring memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in town.

About 12,500 residents have been evacuated from Los Alamos.

Flames were just across the road from the southern edge of the famed lab, where scientists developed the first atomic bomb during World War Two. The facility cut natural gas to some areas as a precaution.

The lab, which employs about 15,000 people, covers more than 93sq km and includes about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites. They include research facilities, as well as waste disposal sites.

Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said environmental specialists were monitoring air quality, but the main concern was smoke.

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