Los Alamos Study Group: Press remarks regarding the Las Conchas Fire, June 29, 2011, 2:30 pm

June 30, 2011

We have assembled some basic fire resources at http://www.lasg.org/fire_weather_resources.html.  A popular resource showing all the buildings and contaminated sites at LANL as of ten years ago can be found at http://www.lasg.org/maps/pages/contents/TAmainmap.htm.

The forests surrounding Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) 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 facilities too will sooner or later burn unless they are protected assiduously.  Laboratory officials tell us they have thinned the forest within LANL appropriately for fire safety.  We have not verified that.

We have not been 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 is not much fuel loading (trees) near some of the most conspicuous hazards, such as the main nuclear waste storage site at Material Disposal Area G in Technical Area (TA) 54.  We do not believe these wastes are highly combustible in their present (drummed) form without an initial significant external heat source.  It is certainly annoying that these drums have not been better protected and there are accident and terrorist scenarios (e.g. airplane crash, intentional fire) that are worrisome.

The same considerations apply to buildings that contain nuclear materials — they are not very combustible and have at least narrow cleared zones surrounding them.

We see no reason not to assume a reasonable degree of competence on the part of the highly-trained firefighters involved, and a sufficiency of equipment and supplies.

The reappearance of high winds could conceivably complicate matters, however, if fire lines are broached in many places at once.  If many new hot spots arose in multiple internal LANL locations firefighters could conceivably be overwhelmed.  The potential presence of unadmitted hazards in unknown locations under such circumstances is another potential issue.

A few laboratory areas do contain volatile soil contamination.  Given the relatively small quantities of materials, the difficulty of heating any significant volume of soil, and the long distances to downwind populations these issues are of concern primarily to firefighters immediately at such areas, should such areas be threatened by fire — which, again, we don’t see.

Much about LANL is a de facto secret even whether or not the subject is classified.  This information deficit — the trust deficit that goes with it — can 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, such as:

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.  According to congressional testimony of Donald Cook, Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) this spring, this facility would house “the nation’s storehouse of plutonium.”  Is any part of this really necessary?  We think not.  (See Reasons Not to Build, or to Delay CMRR-NF, May 22, 2011).  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?

Assuming such a capability were necessary, is this remote site — prone to recurrent wildfire, physically remote, 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 for the town?  Can the lab, its workforce, and the town shrug off a second catastrophic fire and total evacuation in just 11 years?  Surveys have shown low morale at the lab, and Los Alamos has not been a popular residential destination.  Already an ugly town in many eyes, it is now situated in an even more thoroughly burned out forest, and recurring fire can be expected henceforth.  Is Los Alamos, the “City on a Hill” as Time Magazine’s Joseph Kane famously called it (recalling Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Withrop’s famous sermon aboard the Mayflower) sustainable as an ordinary urban place without strict limits on fire-prone landscaping and without new evacuation routes and procedures?  How will this second fire change the town?

The exceptional drought that grips the American Southwest has fueled truly explosive fire behavior in this fire, beyond all prior 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 challenge — 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?  (See, e.g. NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path or http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2011/05/26/208170/texas-worst-drought-dust-bowl-wheat/.)

Is it ironic, or is it tragic (in a sense that Aeschylus would understand) that Los Alamos, a company town which has grown conspicuously wealthy from the single industry of figuring out how to burn up other cities, is itself now subject to the risk of fire, again?

This fire, in its connection both to Los Alamos and its hazards, and increasing aridity of our state due to the northward expansion of the equatorial Hadley cells and associated subtropical deserts, brings to mind the prophetic words of Edith Warner, a quiet woman who lived from the 1920s to the 1950s at Otowi Bridge, whose perceptions were shaped by the tribe in which she lived.

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.  (Edith Warner, as quoted by Peggy Pond Church, The House at Otowi Bridge)

Thus we believe that a proper framing of the issues involved in the Las Conchas Fire would include its deeper causes, deeper effects, and would involve (democratic) public policy issues, not just the performance of (federally-directed) emergency management teams.

Greg Mello

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