THOUSANDS of residents are leaving the town that hosts America’s nuclear weapons lab, Los Alamos, ahead of a wildfire that has shot up towers of smoke, rained down ash and sparked a fire on the lab’s property where scientists once conducted tests on radioactive explosives.
Traffic was bumper-to-bumper Monday afternoon after many of the New Mexico town’s 12,000 residents were asked to leave. Authorities said that 2,500 people had already left under an earlier voluntary evacuation.
Los Alamos is where the first atomic bomb was built and where today’s most dangerous weapons are made. The wildfire, which began Sunday, had destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos by early Monday.
The fire forced the 36-square-mile Los Alamos National Laboratory to close after the flames came within 50 feet of its perimeter. One small fire, located where a series of underground tests with highly explosive and radioactive material were performed in the 1960s, was safely extinguished.
Officials say the nuclear material inside Los Alamos is secure, and that there is no danger to the public. But one former top security official, Glen Walp, isn’t so sure.
“Potential is high for a major calamity if the fire would reach these areas,” he said.
He said that nuclear waste is stored 3 miles from where the fire is blazing now.
“It contains approximately 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste,” Walp said. “It’s not contained within a concrete, brick and mortar-type building, but rather in a sort of fabric-type building that a fire could easily consume.”
Lab spokesman Steve Sandoval could not say what would happen if drums containing that waste were to burn.
“Unfortunately, I cannot answer that question other than to say that the material is well protected,” he told the Associated Press. “And the lab—knowing that it works with hazardous and nuclear materials—takes great pains to make sure it is protected and locked in concrete steel vaults. And the fire poses very little threat to them.”
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