The wildfire has destroyed 30 structures south and west of Los Alamos, for many stirring memories of a devastating blaze in May 2000 that destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings in town.
Flames were just across the road from the southern edge of the famed lab, where scientists developed the first atomic bomb during World War II. The facility cut natural gas to some areas as a precaution.
The lab, which employs about 15,000 people, covers more than 36 square miles and includes about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites. They include research facilities, as well as waste disposal sites. Some facilities, including the administration building, are in the community of Los Alamos, while others are several miles away from the town.
The spot fire scorched a section known as Tech Area 49, which was used in the early 1960s for a series of underground tests with high explosives and radioactive materials.
Lab spokesman Kevin Roark said environmental specialists were monitoring air quality, but the main concern was smoke.
The anti-nuclear watchdog group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety said the fire appeared to be about 3.5 miles from a dumpsite where as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste were stored in fabric tents above ground. The group said the drums were awaiting transport to a dump site in southern New Mexico.
“The concern is that these drums will get so hot that they’ll burst. That would put this toxic material into the plume. It’s a concern for everybody,” said Joni Arends, executive director of the group.
Arends’ group also worried that the fire could stir up nuclear-contaminated soil on lab property where experiments were conducted years ago. Over the years, burrowing animals have brought that contamination to the surface, she said.
Lab officials at first declined to confirm that such drums were on the property but, in a statement early Tuesday, lab spokeswoman Lisa Rosendorf said such drums are stored in a section of the complex known as Area G. She said the drums contain cleanup from Cold War-era waste that the lab sends away in weekly shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
She said the drums were on a paved area with few trees nearby and would be safe even if a fire reached the storage area.
Los Alamos National Lab was established during the Second World War as part of the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb.
“The hair on the back of your neck goes up,” Los Alamos County fire chief Doug Tucker said of first seeing the fire in the Santa Fe National Forest on Sunday. “I saw that plume and I thought, ‘Oh my god here we go again.’”