Nuclear waste at Los Alamos protected by firebreak

Eli Kintisch covers climate and energy issues for Science, the magazine sibling of the peer-reviewed journal of the same name. He's got an update on the situation at Los Alamos National Laboratory that explains a little more about why officials aren't terribly concerned that the nearby forest fire will affect barrels of nuclear waste stored at the site. Shorter version: There's already a firebreak between the fire and Los Alamos "Area G".

While the edge of the fire is only a few dozen meters from the edge of the lab's property, it is roughly 13 km from the most sensitive location, the so-called "Area G." That site is a 63-acre storage facility where thousands of drums of nuclear waste sit, many of which are outdoors.

But between the fire and that site is the remnants of a forest that was largely burned during a horrific 2000 fire on lab property. That fire burned "90%" of the flammable material [Note from Maggie: This is referring to wood, grass, etc. NOT nuclear waste.] from the west side of the lab, says Los Alamos retiree Charles Mansfield, who worked as a physicist at the lab for 17 years and also as a forest firefighter, a so-called smokejumper, for 11 years. Mansfield says he's "not very concerned" about the fire reaching spreading east to Area G.

"It would be very difficult for the fire to get that far," he says. Sometimes embers in a hotly burning fire can be lofted as much as 4 miles to start so-called "spot fires." But this requires a forest burning completely, from the ground to the high branches, he says. The area of forest close enough to have a chance to create the heat and updrafts required to bring the blaze to Area G has already burned, Mansfield contends.


  1. Apparently it wouldn’t matter even if the fire did get that far, since it apparently did last time, and I’ve never heard of any disastrous effects.

    1. Weeeelll, I wouldn’t say “I’ve never heard of any disastrous effects” means there weren’t any, necessarily. It does make me curious, though, to find out whether that’s true.

  2. Seconding carriem’s comment, you’re a welcome relief to much of the alarmism surrounding much of current “journalism” and the way it approaches such things.

    More, please.

  3. Greetings from an actual NM (Albuquerque) resident!

    It seems our chief export this month is panic, and apparently we have exported almost all of it. The people panicking about the Las Conchas fire all seem to be outside of NM, while here in-state, we’re busy listening to Los Alamos and state fire officials, LANL employees and other people on the ground at the fire. And what we’re hearing is hardly panic-inducing.

    The Las Conchas fire is not nearly as threatening to LANL as the Cerro Grande fire ten years ago. It was this fire that burned huge swaths of LANL property, and brought to light the almost non-existent fire plans at the lab. LANL has had 10 years to develop plans, and they have. It’s not a great situation in Los Alamos this week, but it’s hardly a nuclear disaster, either.

    You can bet the family farm that spot fires that encroach on LANL will receive immediate and overwhelming attention. US Forest Service, municipal FDs, LANL employees and volunteers are acutely aware of the potential effects, and spot fires do not stand a chance against these motivated people.

    Are we happy our state is burning? Of course not. But we’re also not praying for a swift death to whatever gods our families worship. We’re cautious, alert, and we pray for rain. I would ask the same of others.

    It’s New Mexico, man. The Land Of Manana. Chill. :)

  4. That’s the prefect example of why there need to be more prescribed burns…they help stop the spread of wildfires and/or they also lessen their intensity.

  5. all the hype is OBVIOUSLY a gubberment spin to take attention off the flooded reactor in Omaha.

  6. In all seriousness, I was very surprised that I hadn’t heard about the Omaha situation sooner. While they prepared well and *so far* are coping fine, that one has me far more concerned than this.

  7. Once again, thanks Maggie. I was starting to get concerned, but reading your article has calmed me down. As I understand it, it wouldn’t be a big deal if the fire did reach “area G” since everything is already fireproofed. Even if the fire engulfed the entire lab I’ve yet to hear what the actually risk to the public would be, since all hazardous materials stored at the lab were designed to withstand this exact type of scenario.

  8. That’s nice. Im in NM. I have contracted for the lab. I can see the fire from my house. I work with people who grew up in Los Alamos in the day. What people never talk about, is what went on as far as dumping and musicians testing in and around the canyons that surround the lab, from the 1940 to 1960’s. It was sort of ad hock. No one thought about “environmental damage” or “waste” Im sure they’ve cleaned most of it up, but, there are still canyons with hot spots, areas of grass and trees that are radioactive enough that if you pick a bit and put in your pocket, you will get a burn. Or so I was told when working in one of the canyons. So, not to rain on the parade, there’s nothing you can do about it, it is what it is. But the drums of waste are probably the least of anyone’s problems.

  9. All is safe, as usual…

    But there still seems to be some cause for concern:

    “Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Charles McMillan said they really don’t know what’s in the ground around the nuclear facility, admitting that old contamination could be a big question mark when it comes to the long-term effects of the fire. (…) McMillan said there are areas off the lab property where waste was deposited decades ago, when safety standards were far lower”


  10. I’m confused. When he says “It would be very difficult for the fire to get that far”, does he mean “It is impossible”?

  11. It’s important to distinguish low level waste from transuranic. Although we often hear otherwise from LANL officials, the waste in the area of concern, Area G, is transuranic waste, meaning it contains contaminants heavier than uranium on the periodic table, including plutonium. It is not low-level radioactive waste. Transuranic waste requires disposal in a deep geologic repository, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located 26 miles of Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP disposes of waste from defense-related activities only. No level of exposure to radioactive materials can be considered “safe.”

  12. The photos I saw yesterday of Area G had some trees within 200 yards of the tents storing barrels of plutonium contaminated waste. This causes me some concern because, unlike you, my house is currently being coated with the ash from this fire.

    Also, the fire has burned to within a bit over 2 miles from the waste dump, a lot closer than suggested here. This is the most active fire ever in NM history, showing occasional extreme fireballing and other extreme fire behaviors, it is certainly capable of spotting over a quarter mile away and has in some of the photos.

    Still, the larger concern is what is buried up in the canyons above town. Back in the 40’s and 50’s they would kick barrels of waste off of trucks up in these canyons, some of that has been cleaned up and is now in those Area G barrels but they did not get it all. Most of this was “low level waste” but recently one of the early dump sites produced a pipe contaminated with 60 GRAMS of plutonium… this was reported three weeks ago in the Los Alamos newspaper. Any idea how much of Northern New Mexico the smoke from that could kill if it burned?

    BB and Maggie in particular are too in love with the nuclear genie to see its dangers.

    Me and my wife, we hope that we don’t get cancer from breathing in this shit. As far as I can tell the EPA’s magic airplane only tested for Gamma, as did the only published testing so far. P-239 and most of the other transuranics we’re concerned about are Alpha emitters and were not even tested for.

  13. “No level of exposure to radioactive materials can be considered “safe.””

    zero tolerance policy huh? then what about stuff like granite countertops and airplane flights? Those cause radiation exposure.

    Even if you limit it to stuff like exposure to uranium and thorium, well, the rare earths in solar panels and the generators of win turbines are found in the ground mixed with thorium and sometimes uranium. So the production of solar cells and generators produces thorium and uranium as a byproduct

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