The United States Government sent a plane equipped with radiation monitors over the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory yesterday as a bushfire burned at its doorstep, putting thousands of scientific experiments on hold for days.
Lab authorities described the monitoring as a precaution and they, along with outside experts on nuclear engineering, expressed confidence that the blaze would not scatter radioactive material, as some in surrounding communities feared.
“Our facilities, our nuclear materials are all safe, they’re accounted for and they’re protected,” said lab director Charles McMillan.
The twin-engine plane, which can take digital photographs and video as well as thermal and night images, was sent to New York City to take air samples after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It has flown over bushfires and areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina. It also helped locate debris from the disintegrated space shuttle Columbia.
In a testament to the sophisticated research done at Los Alamos, the plane was developed with technology from the lab, the desert installation that built the atomic bomb during World War II.
The pillars of smoke that can be seen as far as Albuquerque, 100km away, have people on edge. But officials said they analysed samples taken yesterday from the lab’s monitors and the results showed nothing abnormal in the smoke.
Anti-nuclear groups have sounded the alarm about thousands of 210-litre drums containing low-grade nuclear waste – gloves, tools and other contaminated items – about 2km from the fire. Lab officials said it was highly unlikely the blaze would reach the drums.
Kevin Smith, site manager for the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the lab’s precautions had been scrutinised by dozens of experts.
The lab has been shut down since Wednesday, when the city of Los Alamos and some of its surrounding areas – 12,000 people in all – was evacuated. The fire has held up research on such topics as Aids and particle physics.
Some experts familiar with the Los Alamos lab say there is no reason to fear that flames will scatter radiation.
“The nuclear materials are secure,” said Penn State University nuclear engineering professor Barry Scheetz.
“The US Government … has spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars for scenarios that are so unlikely to occur that it is even ridiculous to think about.”