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The New Mexico Wildfire: Is Los Alamos National Lab Prepared?

Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) was closed today as the 44,000-acre Las Conchas wildfire burning across New Mexico came within 50 feet of its perimeter. The wildfire has already forced the evacuation of 13,000 residents of the surrounding town, and although LANL safety officials say the materials located there are secure, concerns are still lingering—after all, Los Alamos is a nuclear weapons lab and home to nearly 20,000 barrels of nuclear waste. Have officials adequately anticipated or prepared for this risk?

In short, given the lab’s location, they had to. A 2005 paper released by the Laboratory entitled “A Preliminary Probabilistic Wildfire Risk Model for Los Alamos National Laboratory” begins by noting that “Los Alamos National Laboratory is located in the eastern Jemez Mountains, New Mexico, a region that is characterized by high frequencies of wildfires.” The study, which was designed to aid the lab’s management in risk assessment and safety prioritization, found that the highest-risk period for wildfires is right now: June 12 to July 4. During no subseason of the overall wildfire season is the risk of a lightning-caused wildfire burning at the Laboratory higher than 18 percent, but during this high-risk period the risk of such a fire is about 35 percent in a small number of surrounding areas. Furthermore, the authors note, the odds are good that LANL will periodically face wildfires: they quote a 1999 Department of Energy study concluding that “a major fire moving up to the edge of LANL is not only credible but likely, probably on the order of 0.1 (one-in-ten) per year.” This is one major reason why the lab’s most dangerous materials—including uranium and plutonium—are stored within vaults inside concrete-and-steel buildings. According to an LANL spokesman, when a wildfire burned over 7,500 acres of LANL property 11 years ago, none of those materials were released.