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.