This has been a tough year for the Los Alamos National Laboratory. First there was the case of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, who casually downloaded reams of supersensitive U.S. nuclear-weapons data and now claims he was indicted for security violations because of his Chinese ancestry. Then came a blunder by the National Park Service, which lost control of a fire that burned much of the town of Los Alamos, N.M., and came close to causing major damage to the lab complex itself. Then came the uproar over the missing hard drives, two secret computer-memory cartridges whose mysterious reappearance made lab officials the targets of scathing criticism on Capitol Hill. And now another plague: after the fire and the security breakdowns comes the very real possibility of a catastrophic flood.
That, at least, was what Los Alamos officials themselves were saying last week--and rushing to avert. The flood threat was a direct consequence of the Cerro Grande fire, which burned 9,000 acres of lab property and left a dense, water-resistant crust of burned pine needles and pine resin on slopes around Los Alamos. As a result, said Lee McAtee, deputy director of the lab's environmental safety division, the burned-over topsoil will not absorb the torrential downpours that are typical in August, setting up a "very significant" risk of flash flooding in the canyons on the reservation. Now for the scary part: scattered through those canyons are a handful of facilities that house some of the most dangerous substances in creation--plutonium, uranium and a variety of radioactive isotopes.
The worst-case scenario would be a flood that ripped through a lab building and washed uranium or plutonium downstream--a trail of lethally radioactive pollution that could spread for many miles. Ground zero in this scenario is Technical Area 18, a complex of three rectangular buildings, called kivas, in which U.S. scientists have experimented with plutonium and uranium for more than 50 years. Kiva 1, which was scorched by the wildfire last May, is the most directly endangered. As of last week, almost all of the nuclear material had been removed from it and the building was surrounded with a five-foot wall of steel plates bolted to pilings in the canyon floor. If a flood did come, lab officials said, this barrier would deflect logs or boulders that could breach the kiva's walls. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers has begun work on a 70-foot concrete dam across the canyon where TA-18 is located. The dam should be finished by mid-August and will cost $7 million. Considering the alternative, that looks like a bargain.