Blog

Fires Near Los Alamos Nuclear Facility

The forests surrounding Los Alamos National Laboratory have burned and are certain to burn again with some regularity, whether from lightning or human causes.  If too many trees are allowed to remain near laboratory facilities, those too will sooner or later burn, despite everyone’s best efforts.

We are not as yet very concerned about radioactive or toxic materials being caught up in the present fire because we do not see, at present, much possibility of uncontrollable fire reaching any of those hazards.  There are not many trees near some of the most conspicuous hazards, such as the main nuclear waste storage site, and these wastes are not highly combustible in their present form.  The same considerations apply to buildings that contain nuclear materials — they are not very combustible.  We assume a reasonable degree of competence on the part of highly-trained firefighters involved, and sufficiency of equipment.

The reappearance of very high winds could complicate matters, however, as could the potential presence of unadmitted hazards in unknown locations.  A few laboratory areas do contain volatile soil contamination.

Much about Los Alamos is a de facto secret even whether or not the subject is classified.  This information deficit — the trust deficit that goes with it — create problems for firefighters as well as for the rest of us.

Stepping back from the immediately-unfolding drama, we need to ask some serious larger questions.

  • The Obama Administration proposes to build a huge plutonium warhead core (“pit”) factory complex in Los Alamos, costing on the order of $6 billion dollars.  Is this really necessary?  Does it really contribute to national security, or is the present fire yet another reminder that the nature of national security is changing before our eyes?
  • Is this remote site– prone to recurrent wildfire, on the side of a volcano, crossed by faults known to produce accelerations comparable to those recently experienced at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station — really the right place for a plutonium manufacturing center?
  • What future lies ahead for Los Alamos lab, and the town?  Can the lab and its workforce shrug off a second catastrophic fire and total evacuation in just 11 years?  Surveys have shown poor morale at the lab, and Los Alamos has not been a popular residential destination.  Already an ugly town, it is now situated in a burned-out forest and more fire is expected henceforth.  Is Los Alamos even sustainable as an urban place, without strict limits on fire-prone landscaping and without new evacuation routes and procedures?
  • The exceptional drought that grips the American Southwest has fueled truly explosive fire behavior in this fire, beyond all local experience.  Is this a sign of things to come?  Megafires are increasing across the west, as drought and spreading bark beetle infestations enabled by warmer winters devastate large areas of forest.  What is the real national security problem — an imagined insufficiency of nuclear weapon investment, or taking what advantage we can of the converging energy and climate crises to transform our economy and society in a sustainable direction?
  • Is it ironic, or tragic, that Los Alamos, a company town which has grown conspicuously wealthy from the single industry of figuring out how to burn down other cities, is itself now subject to the risk of catastrophic fire?
  • What is the appropriate size of Los Alamos laboratory?  What actually needs to be done there?

This fire brings to mind the prophetic words of Edith Warner, a quiet woman who lived from the 1920s to the 1950s at Otowi Bridge where the road to Los Alamos crosses the Rio Grande.

My friend was wrong who said that this country was so old it does not matter what we Anglos do here.  What we do anywhere matters but especially here.  It matters very much.  Mesas and mountains, rivers and trees, winds and rains are as sensitive to the actions and thought of humans as we are to their forces.  They take into themselves what we give off and give it out again. (quoted by Peggy Pond Church, The House at Otowi Bridge)