Explosives protected, lab says

Friday, May 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Storage areas designed to handle emergencies

The explosives and radioactive material housed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory are not vulnerable to the blaze that has swept through northern New Mexico because officials planned for such a threat.

"Those kinds of materials are kept in extremely secure, bunker-type secure facilities. Secondly, we anticipated wildfire threats in terms of storage of those kinds of materials," said Kay Roybal, a spokeswoman for the laboratory. "So, they are located in areas where there is no vegetation around those areas. There is nothing to burn. There is no way for the fire to get up to those areas because there's no fuel for it."

Ms. Roybal said high explosives are kept in bunkers made of concrete with steel doors. Nuclear materials are kept above ground in a "large, flat, concrete paved area with no vegetation on it at all."

"They are completely impervious to fire, virtually impervious to fire . . . due to the way it was constructed," she said referring to the fireproof facilities. "They've always been very conscious of it, and precautions have been taken from the time these facilities were designed and constructed."

This is the first time since the lab was established in 1943 that the facility has been closed by fire. Only emergency personnel continued to work Thursday at the 43-square-mile lab, founded as part of the Manhattan Project to design and build the world's first atomic bomb. The lab has about 7,000 employees.

About 11,000 people in the town of Los Alamos, an outgrowth of the lab, and an additional 7,000 in suburban White Rock fled as wildfires swept through the streets.

Ms. Roybal said firefighters have kept wildfires at bay from the facilities by burning nearby grasses to eliminate possible fuels.

"It burns the grass and keeps going, unless there is something for it to stay put and burn like trees, then it doesn't get hot enough to be a problem," she said.

Dr. Keith McDowell, associate dean of science at the University of Texas at Arlington, said he was in management at the Los Alamos lab for about nine years. He said he agrees that radioactive materials at the lab would not catch fire.

Rather, he said any problem would involve radioactive material becoming airborne - a highly unlikely scenario.

"It really is in very protective environments. They designed all that knowing it was a fire hazard out there," he said. "If they were to have an incident, which I don't expect they will, it's not the burning, it would be dispersal. It gets up in air, the smoke and ash."

Los Alamos is one of three government nuclear weapons labs that the Energy Department oversees. It has been managed by the University of California.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.