LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — A wildfire burning near the desert birthplace of the atomic bomb advanced on the Los Alamos laboratory and thousands of outdoor drums of plutonium-contaminated waste Tuesday as authorities stepped up efforts to protect the site and monitor the air for radiation.
Officials at the nation's premier nuclear weapons lab gave assurances that dangerous materials were safely stored and capable of withstanding flames from the 93-square-mile fire, which as of midday was as close as 50 feet from the grounds.
A small patch of land at the laboratory caught fire Monday before firefighters quickly put it out. Teams were on high alert to pounce on any new blazes and spent the day removing brush and low-hanging tree limbs from the lab's perimeter.
"We are throwing absolutely everything at this that we got," Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said in Los Alamos.
The fire has forced the evacuation of the entire city of Los Alamos, population about 11,000, cast giant plumes of smoke over the region and raised fears among nuclear watchdogs that it will reach as many as 30,000 55-gallon drums of plutonium-contaminated waste.
"The concern is that these drums will get so hot that they'll burst. That would put this toxic material into the plume. It's a concern for everybody," said Joni Arends, executive director of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, an antinuclear group.
Lab spokeswoman Lisa Rosendorf said the drums are on a paved area with few trees nearby. As of midday Tuesday, the flames were about 2 miles from the material.
"These drums are designed to a safety standard that would withstand a wildland fire worse than this one," Rosendorf said.