Remember Los Alamos

Mary Claire Birdsong

“Remember the Alamo!” is one of the most well-known slogans in American history. It ranks right up there with “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” credited to the Battle of Bunker Hill, or Nathan Hale’s “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” But who remembers Los Alamos? This small city in New Mexico does not conjure any memories from most young people. But this hint might help - Los Alamos, New Mexico: Home of the Atomic Bomb. This is the city with a famous nuclear history dating back to World War II.

On Sunday, June 26, 2011 Los Alamos thundered back into the nuclear energy spotlight as a wildfire burned through the city, threatening the 30,000 drum cache of plutonium waste stored at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Despite the reassurances from the National Nuclear Security Administration, vigilant surveillance, and numerous more-than-adequate safety precautions, many citizens have evacuated the city until they can be sure the danger has passed. The fire and smoke present obvious hazards. But some fear a double-whammy: a wild-fire disaster, or near-disaster, begetting a different kind of nuclear catastrophe.

It remains unclear how nuclear waste concerns factored into each family’s decision to evacuate. The fire alone is an adequate reason to take caution. What is clear is that many citizens, like the early Texans who expressed their fierce independence at the Alamo, can think for themselves. Practical and knowledgable, they are an independent lot. Residents familiar with nuclear energy, such as Mark Smith, a chemical engineer who works at the lab, decided to remain in town despite the fire’s approach. "The risk of exposure is so small. I wouldn't sit here and inhale plutonium. I may be crazy, but I'm not dumb," he said.

The NRC, on high alert for every possible safety concern, remains confident that the situation remains under control. A watchdog group, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, however, voiced new concerns “that these drums will get so hot that they'll burst" sending toxic material into a large plume. Currently, Los Alamos officials at the New Mexico facility have detected "no off-site releases of contamination” and stated the facilities face “no immediate threat.” The site manager for the National Nuclear Security Administration Kevin Smith, evaluated the precautions and said he felt comfortable. The NNSA agency oversees the lab for the Department of Energy. "I have 170 people who validate their measures. They're in steel drums, on a concrete floor."

As the world seeks safe, cheap energy, many have given up on the idea that we can have safe and cheap nuclear energy without nuclear waste to remove, store, or eliminate.

As a newcomer to the study of nuclear energy, I remind myself not to link Los Alamos National Laboratory directly with nuclear energy. It was nuclear weapons facility and is currently a lab - not a nuclear energy plant. Still, there are valuable ideas to consider in midst of the threatening wildfire.

Let us “Remember Los Alamos” for two reasons. First, the situation is being handled appropriately, with the utmost safety and transparency. Second, the Los Alamos low grade nuclear waste storage situation can urge citizens to actively seek safe, cheap, environmentally sound, and reliable nuclear energy, which does not need to produce nuclear waste material for storage. In the new world of nuclear energy, we can recycle! We can say “adios” to waste storage problems. The Integral Fast Reactor is the modern design the United States must build.

In closing, Wednesday, June 29, 2011, remains a critical day for fire control. Although there is little risk of the fire actually reaching the lab's facilities, the workers remain on alert near the waste drums, ready to coat them with fire-resistant foam if the blaze gets too close.

Update 6/30/2011: There are no fires burning on Los Alamos National Laboratory property; personnel remain actively engaged in fire mitigation.


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