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Could New Mexico's wildfire cause a nuclear catastrophe?
Fire crews are fighting off approaching flames in an effort to protect one of the nation's preeminent nuclear labs
 
The sun sets Wednesday as smoke from the Las Conchas wildfire envelopes the hills near the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
The sun sets Wednesday as smoke from the Las Conchas wildfire envelopes the hills near the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
REUTERS/Eric Draper

A fire blazing across New Mexico is lapping at the edges of a large nuclear lab, raising fears about the safety of the nuclear waste stored within. The fire, which broke out on Sunday, has scorched more than 100 square miles of the Santa Fe National Forest, and is creeping ever closer to the edge of the nuclear plant's property. Is this as dangerous as it sounds? Here, a brief guide:

Why is this lab so important?
The Los Alamos National Laboratory has been the site of nuclear tests and research since World War II. It is the birthplace of the atomic bomb, and created the bombs that were used in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Researchers there are also working to develop an HIV vaccine, renewable energy sources, and space lasers to send to Mars.

What's dangerous about any of that?
Not much. But the plant is reportedly home to 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste. As of Thursday morning, the flames were reportedly two miles away from this waste. "The concern is that these drums will get so hot that they'll burst," says Joni Arends, executive director of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, as quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle. There is also concern that the fire could stir up nuclear-contaminated soil left over from years of testing, sending the nuclear waste into the plumes of smoke hovering over the area.

Could the nuclear waste catch fire?
Officials insist the containment drums are built to withstand fires, and are stored in vaults located in areas stripped of vegetation. "The threat is extremely low," lab spokesman Kevin Roark told USA Today. But nuclear watchdogs fear the worst. Glen Walp, a former top security official for the plant, claims the barrels are not well contained, and that they sit above ground in a "fabric-type building." "Potential is high for a major calamity if the fire would reach these areas," Walp told ABC News. Officials say the flames would have to "jump through canyons" before reaching the nuclear waste.

What's being done to protect residents?
All "non-essential" lab employees have been evacuated, as have most of the 12,000 Los Alamos residents. As firefighters battle the blaze, officials are standing by, ready to coat the nuclear waste drums in a fire-resistant foam should the flames draw near. Fire crews have set part of the parameter of the lab on fire to starve the wildfire of fuel. "We are in the best shape we've been in since thing started," Chief Doug Tucker of the Los Alamos County Fire Department told ABC News.

Has any radiation been released so far?
As of Thursday, no. The EPA dispatched a special plane to collect air samples measuring for chemicals and radiation, and the first samples showed a lot of smoke but no radiation. Energy Department planners say that even if the fire does release radiation from the plant, it would only be less than 25 rems, which is "below short and long-term health concerns."

SourcesABC NewsDaily MailPCWorld, SFGate.com, USA Today

 

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