Q&A: Is New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Laboratory Really Safe?

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STR New / Reuters

Los Alamos County employees work to haul away brush and spray water on trees in Los Alamos Canyon

Los Alamos, N.M. is feeling the heat this week as it battles the Las Conchas wildfire that has been raging since Sunday.

Caused by a fallen power line, the blaze — which spans more than 108 miles — has destroyed about 61,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest and forced the evacuation of the town of Los Alamos (population 11,000).  Worse, the fire is creeping dangerously close to the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), one of the country’s biggest nuclear research facilities. At risk are 20-30,000 drums of Cold War-era plutonium-contaminated waste that are sitting above ground in fabric tents in Technical Area 54 within the Area G section.

While LANL officials maintain that no toxins have been released yet, scientists and the EPA are checking for radioactive materials in the air around the 36-square-mile complex, which employs 15,000 people and is made up of 2,000 buildings.  The lab has been closed since Monday and is expected to reopen Thursday.

Peter Stockton, a senior investigator for the independent watchdog Project on Government Oversight (POGO), spoke to NewsFeed about what is at stake now if the Las Conchas wildfire blows too close to the hazardous materials.  An expert on nuclear materials, Stockton has actually worked on POGO’s investigations of LANL that challenged the lab’s fire safety measures.

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What’s the worst case scenario here?

There was a big fire in 2000, and LANL was really going to get things straightened out for fires after that. [POGO] got tipped off in 2009 by a whistleblower that in PF-4—where the six metric tons of plutonium are, as well as where pits are manufactured [the highly enriched uranium part of nuclear weapons]—they’ve painted over the sprinkler system so many times that it doesn’t work. And we blasted them, and it turned out to be absolutely true; they didn’t work at all.  And then it was determined that LANL had never tested the fire hoses in the building, even though the lab had been there for something like 15 years.

…They found out about a year later that the pressure in the system isn’t great enough to get to the entire building, so they had to do something to mitigate that problem. So I hope that they have taken fire a little more seriously because wildfires are wild; embers and everything are flying all over the place.

So do you think the lab is vulnerable to this wildfire? 

Potentially, yeah. I hope that nothing happens there. But can you imagine how much it would cost to rebuild it? They even want to build a $6-billion building right now next to PF-4 for CMR [Chemistry and Metallurgy Research].

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The Associated Press reports that LANL is storing “as many as 30,000 drums of plutonium-contaminated waste in fabric tents above ground.” Is that really a safe standard procedure? Ideally, how should LANL store this waste?

You would think [LANL] would get rid of that stuff.  They talked about getting it out of there, but they simply haven’t.  They [should] store it at WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) in southern New Mexico, an underground storage facility for low-level waste.  But again, now they claim these barrels can stand up to tests of fire.

There is concern about a radioactive smoke plume forming if the wildfire reacts with LANL’s hazardous materials.  What is the risk of that happening?

TA-54 contains 20,000-30,000 drums of waste, but just because it’s low-level waste doesn’t mean anything.  If that becomes airborne, and just a speck of plutonium gets into your lungs, you’re going to end up with cancer down the road. It’s the most toxic substance known to man. It would be very nasty if those drums blew apart, and the wind carried them downwind.

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Should residents in the surrounding area be worried about the wildfire reacting with LANL’s drums of hazardous waste?

Los Alamos is very concerned, but TA-54 is [also] right next to the town of White Rock. We have a very good friend who lives in White Rock, and he has his RV packed, and we said get out of town because when they do a compulsory evacuation, the roads are going to be a mess. So he’s in a state park 100 miles away now, and he can see the smoke from there. But at least he’s out of town. They’ve done an evacuation of Los Alamos, but White Rock, as of early yesterday, hadn’t done a mandatory one. [These towns] are at the whim of nature now.

Obviously, Japan is still on everyone’s mind. Is there anything that LANL should learn from the way Japan has handled its nuclear crisis? Or anything LANL shouldn’t do?

[Regarding] the $6-billion building I was telling you about, there’s a seismic problem with that, and there’s a seismic problem with a lot of the places at the lab. [LANL is on a fault line.] All of a sudden [officials] are starting to focus on that now. I do believe LANL should be honest about what the situation is. I’m not arguing that they are lying about anything, but they’re putting on the absolute best face, acting as if nothing can happen. But as you know, things can happen.  I’m sure they’re doing the best they can under the circumstances, but whether they’re really as prepared as they should be, I don’t know.

Is there anything else you want to say about this situation in Los Alamos?

Just hope to hell that the wind blows in the right direction.

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