Los Alamos Fire risks Plutonium Waste Stores

The city of Los AlamosinNew Méxicohas a population of eleven thousand people and 30,000 55 gallon drums of contaminated plutonium waste. The drums are not stored where people live but close by in the open air in the grounds of the Los Alamos National Laboratory which was famous for developing the atomic bomb. People and plutonium do not live comfortably together and when nature intervenes the discomfort turns into danger.

A wildfire has broken out quite close by the extensive Los Alamos facility. It was, as last reported, fifty feet from the perimeter of the Laboratory’s extensive grounds and two miles from where the waste material is stored. A danger is that if the fire gets close to the drums that store the waste the drums will heat up and as the gases inside them expand the drums may explode. The Laboratory explains that the drums are designed to store the waste safely at higher temperatures than those that the fire will create, so all may be well. However, designing drums of metal to withstand the pressure that is caused by liquids expanding into gases is a difficult business and then storing the drums outside in the open instead of burying them in the ground to protect plutonium contaminated waste against such events as fire does not, at first sight, sound like the safest option.

Of course fire fighters are working hard to bring the fire under control but as a precaution the eleven thousand souls who live inLos Alamoshave been evacuated for the time being.

The half life of plutonium is 24,000 years.

The plutonium at Los Alamos is not a product of the nuclear power industry but a product of its parent industry, the design and manufacture nuclear weapons. Nevertheless it is an example of the stress that nuclear industries of all kinds create locally, nationally and for the world as a whole.

Nuclear energy is intended to be used as a low carbon alternative to fossil fuel, thus mitigating fast climate change. Nuclear energy is not a non carbon alternative to fossil fuel, but a lower carbon alternative and in some cases (depending on where the uranium is sourced) a source of energy that is just as carbon dioxide intensive as some fossil fuels.

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