The Risk to Waste Stored at Area G

We pride ourselves here at Nuclear Watch New Mexico on trying to stick to the facts as we best we know them and not being alarmist. That said, the Las Conchas Fire that has now crossed the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s (LANL’s) southwestern boundary is a real threat. For starters is the mind-blowing fact that in just 30 hours this fire has grown bigger than the notorious 2000 Cerro Grande Fire which burned ~48,000 acres (~5,000 acres within Lab boundaries), and traveled in a beeline 12 miles to get to the Lab. With forecasted days of strong winds and gusts and high temperatures it’s hard to say where this fire might go and what it might do. Pray for rain.

We are not so concerned about the hardened facilities at the Lab constructed of concrete and cleared of combustible materials (i.e., trees and brush) around their perimeters. We doubt that there would be any breech to their containment that would let contaminants escape (with one caveat below). But we do have concerns. One is the fact that over 6 decades the Lab has blown up a lot of uranium and depleted uranium in dynamic high explosives experiments in the general area in front of the fire. We don’t know to what extent the shrapnel or debris has been cleaned up and could possibly be aerosolized.

Another concern, given both the velocity and ferocity of the Las Conchas Fire, is whether any Lab facilities loose their power and back up generators failed to work for whatever reason. In that case containment systems could fail with unknown safety implications.

LANL TA-54 Material Disposal Area G
Domes at LANL's TA-54 Material Disposal Area G

But our biggest concern is whether the fire could reach the fabric buildings (essentially very large tents) at Technical Area-54’s Area G that store some 20,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated wastes from nuclear weapons research and production. We recommend that the public use satellite-based fire detection data and fire intelligence information published by the US Forest Service to monitor the situation (see related post for instructions on how use it). From that we can “see” that the leading edge of the fire is a little more than three miles from Area G.

The good news is that the fire should slow down if and when it heads toward Area G because it will have to leave the mostly ponderosa forest into pinon and juniper country (which doesn’t crown fire like ponderosa). Also, the Lab has cleared trees and vegetation around Area G, and the fire would have to jump some major canyons just to get there.

So here’s hoping the fire doesn’t get anywhere close to Area G. But watch out if it does. The public should be concerned and really pay close attention. It might be a good time to take a road trip somewhere away from being downwind. This is one fire that cannot be underestimated.


12 thoughts on “The Risk to Waste Stored at Area G”

  1. Besides praying for rain, let’s pray that we’ll see it’s time to put an end to nuclear testing, power, or whatever these highly toxic substances are being used for, before it takes all of us out!

  2. Agreed! Transforming these disasters into positive action and solidarity against nuclear weapons/energy/waste is perhaps the best thing we can do at this time.

  3. We need to be concerned about ANY smoke generated in the immediate vicinity of TA-54, Area G

    “Baseline Radionuclide and Nonradionuclide Concentrations in Soils, Vegetation, and Small Mammals at the Proposed Expansion Area at TA-54 Area G,” LA-14354 Issued: November 200


    From the Study: “Field mice samples from the expansion area contained higher amounts of
    3H, 238 Pu, 239, 240 Pu, 241Am, 234 U, and 238 U than the RSRLs (Table 7). These results, with the exception of uranium isotopes, reflect those usually reported in soil and vegetation (Fresquez, 2007) and mice (Fresquez et al., 2005b) samples collected within the active waste management area. The uranium in mice from the expansion area is naturally occurring (e.g., the ratio of 234 U and 238U is close to one) and is not a concern; the amounts of naturally occurring uranium in soil are generally higher in the Los Alamos area than in the surrounding areas (Fresquez et al., 1996). As for the other radionuclides
    detected in mice samples at the expansion area, it appears that these mice, because of their small home range, are probably picking up these radionuclides somewhere within the active pits on the northwestern side of Area G. The concentrations of these radionuclides in mice collected at the expansion area, however, are far below biota screening levels (10% of the biota dose standard of 0.1 rad/d) and the mice are not at risk for receiving a potential unacceptable radiological dose (Soholt et al., 2003; Fresquez et al., 2005b).

    “Increased Wind Erosion from Forest Wildfire: Implications for Contaminant-Related Risks,” published in the Journal of Environmental Quality, Vol. 35 No. 2, p. 468-478 2005 Link
    From the report: “There have been numerous studies on the effects of forest fires on water erosion and runoff, but this study is among the first to document wildfire effects on wind erosion in a forest ecosystem and one that is particularly vulnerable to wildfire (Covington, 2003; Friederici, 2003). Our results suggest that wildfire increases wind erosion. Specifically, HDF was significantly increased in burned areas, especially in the severely burned areas. The likely causes of increased HDF in the burned areas are decreased vegetation, litter, and tree cover that resulted in higher surface wind velocities (Whicker et al., 2002).”

  4. The headline from the Los Alamos Monitor, June 26, 2011 was ‘MDA-T cleanup could hit $1B. This about a 2.2 acre parcel inside TA-21 known as Material Disposal Area…’Nearly 18 million gallons of treated and untreated plutonium wastewater and solvents, or untreated tritium wastewater were discharged into beds on that site until 1967.’ (a direct quote). There are other areas as mentioned in the article. Soon we will experience heavy rains, almost a reply of the Cerro Grande Fire. I’ll bet the lab does their own tests of the water in the Rio Grande which will come out clean to put us all at ease as to the great job the lab is doing. Do I believe it? Not for even one minute. Hope you folks and other watchdog groups will keep the pressure on these nuts.

    To bad you can only read the first few lines.

    Richard Norton
    Santa Fe, NM

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