Airplane deployed to monitor air over New Mexico fire
Thu, 30 Jun 2011 10:24:09 GMT —
LOS ALAMOS, N.M. (AP) " Los Alamos nuclear laboratory officials say it could be a few days before they'll know the extent of how experiments at the facility that created the first atomic bomb have been affected by a shutdown caused by a 125-square mile wildfire.
Lab Director Charles McMillan, who last month took over management of the lab that sits atop desert mesas, said Wednesday that teams will quickly figure out how things stand as soon as they're able to return.
The lab has been shut down since Monday, when all of the city of Los Alamos and some of its surrounding areas " 12,000 people in all " was evacuated.
There was no word on when it will reopen, but it was expected to remain idle at least through Friday.
Officials said the Los Alamos National Laboratory has some 10,000 experiments running at the same time that have been put on hold.
"We have a range of projects, some of them have shorter time deliverable, some of them are years to decades," McMillan said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Among the work delayed are experiments run on two supercomputers, the Roadrunner and Cielo. The National Security Administration's three national laboratories " Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore " all share computing time on Cielo, which is among the world's fastest computers.
Also delayed is work on projects ranging from extending the life of 1960s era B61 nuclear bombs to studies on how climate change affects ocean currents. The computer allows scientist to look at different scenarios, including changes in currents and the melting of the ice caps.
Fire officials late Wednesday said they're confident that the fire won't spread onto the lab and the town of Los Alamos. Firefighters burned out brush to create a 10-mile long burned out area between the fire and the lab.
"It's looking good right now," Los Alamos County Fire Chief Doug Tucker said. The fire grew to 125 square miles, with most of the growth happening north of the lab. Firefighters were bracing for wind gusts of up to 45 miles forecast for Thursday.
On Monday, about an acre of lab property burned, raising concerns about possible contamination from material stored or buried on lab grounds. As a precaution, the government sent a plane equipped with radiation monitors over the lab. Samples analyzed so far from some of the lab's monitors show nothing abnormal in the smoke.
Lab authorities described the monitoring from the air 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.
"The nuclear materials are secure," said Penn State University nuclear engineering professor Barry Scheetz, who has served on National Academy of Sciences nuclear review boards and has been to Los Alamos several times. "There's multiple redundancy in the protection of this material."
Anti-nuclear groups have sounded the alarm about thousands of 55-gallon drums containing low-grade nuclear waste " gloves, tools, even paper notes and other contaminated items " about two miles from the fire. Lab officials said it was highly unlikely the blaze would reach the drums, and that the steel containers can in any case withstand flames and will be sprayed with fire-resistant foam if necessary.
The lab works on such topics as renewable energy and particle physics, solar flares, forensics on terrorist attacks, and studying the AIDS virus at the molecular level to help scientists develop strategies for developing vaccines.
The lab also did early work on the human genome project.
"You say to me, 'Why in the world would Los Alamos be into biology?,'''McMillan said. "The path is an interesting one because it's related to nuclear weapons. Back in the 1950s, nobody understood very well how radiation, particularly from nuclear weapons, affected biological systems, and so the laboratory got involved with helping to do those studies."
McMillan said the work on the B61 includes experimenting with materials needed to extend the life of the bombs to see how they'll hold up over time.
Officials previously announced the bombs would need washers, o-rings, foam supports, cables and other "limited life" components to extend the life of the bombs by 20 years.
At quadrillions of calculations per second, the Cielo supercomputer has enough computing power to simulate nuclear explosions based on models from previously collected data.
"When we get fine enough resolution we start to see physics occurring that we know has to be there," McMillan said.
McMillan said he's limited on details of most of the experiments because they involve work to secure the nation's nuclear stockpile.
Meanwhile, the economic impact of shutting down the town was already weighing on the minds of Los Alamos officials and business owners.
Firefighters have so far been able to keep the fire away from the town and the lab " whose employees account for up to 90 percent of the town's commerce, said Kevin Holsapple, executive director of the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce, as well as the local economic development group.
Holsapple did not have an estimate on what the impact would be from the latest fire.
Following a major wildfire in May 2000, the federal government paid out tens of millions to hundreds of businesses to compensate for financial and property loss.
"Lightning is not supposed to strike twice in one place," Holsapple said of the second town evacuation in a little over 11 years. "Their preparation in general is better that you would find because of people's experience with this kind of thing."
This time around, that federal government help isn't available.
Gov. Susana Martinez said the state is helping by delaying collection of sales taxes from business affected by the fire.
Other measures being offered to Los Alamos businesses by Holsapple's groups include making interest payments for business loans, as well as support to help business restart.
Business owner Don Taylor of Don Taylor's Photography that's been in town for 27 years, packed up his cameras, lights and four years of records when he evacuated town on Monday. He said he missed a few appointments scheduled this week that he's hoping to reschedule. He also has four weddings scheduled next month, including one on a ski area scorched by fire.
"A wedding. They'll make it happen," Taylor said, adding that he's optimistic his and other businesses will survive. "The fire in 2000 made us a stronger community."
AP writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque and Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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