“The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with a mission to strengthen global security by reducing the risk of use and preventing the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and to work to build the trust, transparency, and security that are preconditions to the ultimate fulfillment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s goals and ambitions.
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.’”
LOS ALAMOS, N.M., June 28 (UPI) — Residents were ordered to evacuate Los Alamos, N.M., as an out-of-control wildfire was at the town’s edge and buffeted the secretive U.S. military nuclear lab.
A Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman said the blaze, at the facility’s southern boundary, remained a few miles from key structures on the 25,600-acre property.
Nuclear and other hazardous materials were in safe storage deep inside vaults within concrete and steel buildings, Kevin Roark told the Alibi newspaper of Albuquerque.
The lab would not comment on a Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety allegation that the wildfire was about 3 miles from a nuclear dumpsite containing tens of thousands of 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste.
The anti-nuclear watchdog group’s Web site appeared hacked early Tuesday morning, a United Press International check indicated. Its Facebook page had six messages from people alerting the group of the possible hacking, including a message commenting on the timing of the incident happening “just as the fires started.”
The wildfire, which began Sunday and exceeded 50,000 acres, or 78 square miles, early Tuesday, destroyed at least 30 homes and outbuildings south and west of Los Alamos, fire officials said.
“We don’t have a hard number,” Los Alamos Assistant Fire Chief Mike Thompson told the Albuquerque Journal.
Officials planned a flyover Tuesday morning to assess its scope.
The fire — whose flames and smoke could be seen from Albuquerque, about 80 miles south — caused erosion and runoff, with contaminants threatening the Rio Grande, officials said.
Roark told the Alibi, “There were not appreciable levels of radioactivity in the runoff.”
After the Cerro Grande fire in 2000, which devastated Los Alamos and changed firefighting policies and strategies all across the West, the lab installed structures to prevent heavy runoff, he said.
Some residents evacuating the town were “calm and other people are really frantic,” Sheila Luna told the Santa Fe New Mexican.
“The Conoco gas station ran out of gas last night, and at the next gas station I waited for 15 minutes before I could get the car filled up,” she said. “That part was kind of scary to me.”
TEPCO released footage for the first time on Wednesday of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant Unit 3 reactor’s spent fuel pool. The fuel rods, covered in debris from the March explosions, weren’t visible in the footage but officials believe they are largely undamaged. In an operation filmed by a robot camera, 40 milliliters of water was collected from the spent fuel pool. The water is contaminated with high levels of radioactive material which needs further analysis for evaluation.
In light of the 25th anniversary of Chernobyl, which has followed the news of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, I did a bit of poking around and discovered there was a nuclear accident prior to Three-Mile Island (1979).
The SL-1, or Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number One, was a United States Army experimental nuclear power reactor which underwent a steam explosion and meltdown on January 3, 1961, killing its three operators. The direct cause was the improper withdrawal of the main control rod, responsible for 80% of neutron moderation in the poorly-designed reactor core. The event is the only known fatal reactor accident in the United States.
The facility, located at the National Reactor Testing Station approximately forty miles (60 km) west of Idaho Falls, Idaho, was part of the Army Nuclear Power Program and was known as the Argonne Low Power Reactor (ALPR) during its design and build phase. It was intended to provide electrical power and heat for small, remote military facilities, such as radar sites near the Arctic Circle, and those in the DEW Line. The design power was 3 MW (thermal). Operating power was 200 kW electrical and 400 kW thermal for space heating. NASA system failure studies have cited that the core power level reached nearly 20 GW in just four milliseconds, precipitating the reactor accident and steam explosion.
On December 21, 1960, the reactor was shut down for maintenance, calibration of the instruments, installation of auxiliary instruments, and installation of 44 flux wires to monitor the neutron flux levels in the reactor core. The wires were made of aluminum, and contained slugs of aluminum-cobalt alloy.
On January 3, 1961 the reactor was being prepared for restart after a shutdown of eleven days over the holidays. Maintenance procedures were in process, which required the main central control rod to be manually withdrawn a few inches to reconnect it to its drive mechanism; at 9:01 p.m. this rod was suddenly withdrawn too far, causing SL-1 to go prompt critical instantly. In four milliseconds, the heat generated by the resulting enormous power surge caused water surrounding the core to begin to explosively vaporize. The water vapor caused a pressure wave to strike the top of the reactor vessel. This propelled the control rod and the entire reactor vessel upwards, which killed the operator who had been standing on top of the vessel, leaving him impaled to the ceiling by the control rod. The other two military personnel, a supervisor and a trainee, were also killed. The victims were Army Specialists John A. Byrnes (age 27) and Richard Leroy McKinley (age 22), and Navy Electrician’s Mate Richard C. Legg (age 26).
Events after the power excursion
There were no other people at the reactor site. The ending of the nuclear reaction was caused solely by the design of the reactor and the basic physics of heated water and core elements vaporizing, separating the core elements and removing the moderator.
Heat sensors above the reactor set off an alarm at the central test site security facility at 9:01 p.m., the time of the accident. False alarms had occurred in the morning and afternoon that same day. The first response crew, of six firemen, arrived nine minutes later, expecting another false alarm. and initially noticed nothing unusual, with only a little steam rising from the building, normal for the cold (−20 °F or −30 °C) night. The control building appeared normal. The firefighters entered the reactor building and noticed a radiation warning light. Their radiation detectors jumped sharply to above their maximum range limit as they were climbing the stairs to SL-1′s floor level. They were able to peer into the reactor room before withdrawing.
At 9:17 p.m., a health physicist arrived. He and a fireman, both wearing air tanks and masks with positive pressure in the mask to force out any potential contaminants, approached the reactor building stairs. Their detectors read 25 Roentgens per hour (R/hr) as they started up the stairs, and they withdrew.
Some minutes later, a health physics response team arrived with radiation meters capable of measuring gamma radiation up to 500 R/hr—and full-body protective clothing. One health physicist and two firefighters ascended the stairs and, from the top, could see damage in the reactor room. With the meter showing maximum scale readings, they withdrew rather than approach the reactor more closely and risk further exposure.
Around 10:30 p.m., the supervisor for the contractor running the site and a contractor health physicist arrived. They entered the reactor building and found two mutilated men: one clearly dead, the other moving slightly. With a one minute and one entry per person limit, a team of five men with stretchers recovered the operator who was still breathing; he did not regain consciousness and died of his head injury at about 11 p.m. Even stripped, his body was so contaminated that it was emitting about 500 R/hr. They looked for but did not find the third man. With all potential survivors now recovered, safety of rescuers took precedence and work was slowed to protect them.
On the night of 4 January, a team of six volunteers used a plan involving teams of two to recover the second body. Radioactive gold 198Au from the man’s brass watch buckle and copper 64Cu from a screw in a cigarette lighter subsequently proved that the reactor had indeed gone supercritical.
The third man was not discovered for several days because he was pinned to the ceiling above the reactor by a control rod. On 9 January, in relays of two at a time, a team of eight men, allowed no more than 65 seconds exposure each, used a net and crane arrangement to recover his body.
The bodies of all three were buried in lead-lined caskets sealed with concrete and placed in metal vaults with a concrete cover. Army Specialist Richard Leroy McKinley is buried in section 31 of Arlington National Cemetery.
Removal of core from SL-1
The remains of the SL-1 building did not go to the Burial Ground. After abandoning early thoughts of restoring the building, GE concluded that hauling the contaminated debris to the Burial Ground, a distance of sixteen miles and partly on Highway 20/26 would subject laborers to too much avoidable risk. Instead, it built two large pits and a trench about 1,600 feet away from the SL-1 compound. The walls of the silo, the power conversion and fan-floor equipment, the shielding gravel, and the contaminated soil that had been gathered during the clean-up all went into the pits. Three feet of clean earth shielded the material. An exclusion fence with hazard warnings went up around the area, the only monument to the reactor.
From the Arlington National Cemetary Records:
MILITARY DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON
WASHINGTON 28, D.C.
In Reply Refer To
AMHRC 31 January 1961
SUBJECT: Internment of Radioactive Remains
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington 11, Virginia
1. Radioactive remains of SP4 Richard L. McKinley were interred at Arlington National Cemetery on 25 January 1961.
2. It is desired that the following remark be placed onthe permanent record, DA Form 2122, Record ofInternment:
“Victim of nuclear accident. Body is contaminated with long-life radio-active isotopes. Under no circumstances will the body be moved from this location without prior approval of the Atomic Energy Commission in consultation with this headquarters.”
I have not been able to find more details post-event, such as the health of those that were exposed during the rescue of the three workers killed. Life, news, and facts were handled much differently during these days….
Photo from 1961 of the damaged top of the SL-1 reactor vessel reused in 1981 to convey a safety message
Other information of interest:
Measures Relative to the Biological Effect of Radiation Exposure