NM Residents Worry as Fire Rages Near Nuke Lab

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A New Mexico wildfire continued to threaten the nation's top nuclear weapons laboratory and roughly 20,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated waste near Los Alamos on Wednesday.
   
Although Los Alamos National Laboratory authorities say the dangerous materials are safely stored, the situation has many people worried.

"What we're worried about is what happens when the fires go right into these buildings and perhaps pop open some of these 55-gallon drums," said Dr. Michio Kaku, Henry Semat Professor of Theoretical Physics in the City College of New York.

The fire started Sunday and is still out of control. It already has burned 95 square miles. One anti-nuclear watchdog group said the blaze is just several miles from the dumpsite where the waste is stored.

Still, laboratory officials insist the fire shouldn't reach the barrels since there's no vegetation to burn in the area -- just gravel or asphalt. 
   
They also offered assurances that they're taking every precaution.

"We've removed fuels from near the buildings. We've done the analysis to understand what would happen if a fire occurred. And we've made plans to deal with that," Laboratory Director Dr. Charles McMillan said.

The fire has destroyed some 30 buildings in the New Mexico countryside, and it has forced the evacuation of 11,000 Los Alamos residents.

"Kind of upsets you. I mean, no use in getting upset because there's nothing you can do about it," Los Alamos evacuee Bosco Honer said.

But even away from the lab, there's another fear for evacuees - plutonium-tainted dust.

"Plutonium is one of the most toxic particles known to science," Kaku explained. "A particle -- a microgram that you can't even see -- lodged in your lungs could cause lung cancer."

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