LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — The government sent a plane equipped with radiation monitors over the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory Wednesday as a 110-square-mile wildfire burned at its doorstep, putting thousands of scientific experiments on hold.
Lab authorities described the monitoring as a precaution, and they, along with outside experts on nuclear engineering, expressed confidence that the blaze would not scatter radioactive material, as some feared.
"Our facilities, our nuclear materials are all safe, they're accounted for and they're protected," said lab director Charles McMillan.
The twin-engine plane, which can take digital photographs and video as well as thermal and night images, was sent to New York City to take air samples after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It has flown over wildfires and areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina. It monitored the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. It also helped locate debris from the disintegrated Columbia space shuttle.
And in a testament to the sophisticated research done at Los Alamos, the plane was developed with technology from the lab, the desert installation that built the atomic bomb during World War II.
The pillars of smoke that can be seen as far as Albuquerque, 60 miles away, have people on edge.
Anti-nuclear groups have sounded the alarm about thousands of 55-gallon drums containing low-grade nuclear waste — gloves, tools and other contaminated items — about two miles from the fire. Lab officials said it was highly unlikely the blaze would reach the drums, and that the steel containers can, in any case, withstand flames and will be sprayed with fire-resistant foam if necessary.