The week began with news of the explosive growth of a fire bearing down on the town of Los Alamos. As of late Monday, Las Conchas fire is moving through the Jemez mountains towards the mesas and canyons of the community of Los Alamos. A photo of the hospital circulating online shows it edged by a wall of fire. We can only hope the community is spared from destruction, especially since it has never fully recovered from the trauma of the 2000 Cerro Grande fire.
Even if the outcome ultimately is a best-case scenario ? a disaster averted ? June 27, 2011 was day one of another major nuclear scare for New Mexico. It is difficult to write an about a situation that is changing minute by minute.
However, having been through this before, I will assume until proven wrong, that when Los Alamos burns, the first victim is the truth. Second, information will come in bits and pieces. It takes research and analysis to get at the whole truth.
For example, the official Los Alamos website reported that a fire that jumped the road into Technical Area 49, stating: “Emergency officials say the Las Conchas fire, which had burned to the southern edge of New Mexico State Route 4 at the Lab’s southwest boundary, crossed the road to the north early this afternoon ? About one acre burned and the Lab has detected no off-site releases of contamination.”
Does that careful wording mean that releases were detected on-site and if so will anyone tell the public what the releases were? That phrasing sent me looking for information about TA 49 to learn the kinds of contamination it holds.
The site had been used years ago for underground experiments approved by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. Although the tests ended in the 1960s, TA 49 has a long paper trail documenting decades of leaks, ground water contamination by plutonium, and multiple failed efforts to stop the contamination and remediate the site. Six areas within TA 49 are designated Potential Release Sites (PRSs). A 2003 study states that on-site contamination levels at TA 49 are 40 kg of plutonium, 93 kg of uranium- 235, 170 kg of uranium-238, 11 kg of beryllium, and possibly more than 90,000 kg of lead; all toxic and very harmful to human health.
Threats from fire in Los Alamos are not just radiologic. In addition to sites contaminated by radiation, toxic chemical and heavy metal waste sites also dot the weapons compound.
Despite the number of toxic locations, Gov. Martinez joined the chorus of people saying that all hazardous materials are safe. That is just not true. She may have been assured of the safety of the small category of highly toxic radioactive elements referred to collectively as “special nuclear materials.” These special nuclear materials are plutonium, uranium-233, and uranium-235. Special nuclear materials (SNM) are the guts of nuclear bombs.
We have to hope the fire does not reach Technical Area 55, Area G, a dump filled with tens of thousands of 55 gallon drums of nuclear waste mostly just sitting on the ground. After the Cerro Grande fire in 2000 finally died and the public was allowed back into Los Alamos, I observed that only the two-lane road had kept the fire from reaching the dump. The fire last time was too close to Area G for comfort.
If the fire heads that way, it will take the perfect combination of luck and skill by our emergency responders to again protect Area G from fire. In recognition of our gratitude to the responders, we need to assure that every best practice of preventive and protective health be provided to them, including personal protective equipment.
If fire enters the bomb plant itself, more protection should be provided, including but not limited to radiation-monitoring badges, on-site laundry, as well as appropriate screening and follow-up based on actual individual exposure, and good record keeping for long term follow-up.
The failure to protect the health and safety of emergency responders during the Cerro Grande fire must not be repeated.
Formerly a national “laboratory,” the lead operator is Bechtel, a for-profit corporate octopus with tentacles around the world. Bechtel was awarded the management of Los Alamos in 2005 with the former operator the University of California demoted to a junior partner role. A nuclear bomb facility in a dangerous wildfire zone is too risky.
As we see over and over again, it is not possible to out-engineer Mother Nature. We have to once and for all finally just say no to nukes.
Carol Miller, a public health activist, lives in Ojo Sarco, New Mexico.