During an earthquake, a fault line under the Los Alamos National Laboratory could yaw open and topple buildings filled with plutonium, which could burst into flames and release lethal amounts of radioactive material into the surrounding air.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory’s safety and response analysis relied on inadequate safety measures not yet implemented, found the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu urging “immediate and long-term actions” to contain and mitigate the plume of toxic smoke and vaporized plutonium that could arise during an earthquake.
The “offsite consequences” exceed the Energy Department’s guidelines by “two orders of magnitude,” the federal safety experts wrote. They described the buildings’ physical structure as the only containment barrier to a fire.
In the worst-case fire scenario, someone standing at the edge of the lab’s boundaries would die within weeks from the exposure. It is unknown to the general public how much plutonium is contained at Los Alamos, though the Los Angeles Times reports that lab engineers are considering moving some of the plutonium elsewhere in a costly process.
Thirty six miles from Santa Fe, Los Alamos National Laboratory is surrounded by Indian reservations such as the San Idelfonso Pueblo, which is famous for its black-on-black pottery. Just south of Los Alamos is the 33,000-acre Bandelier National Monument, where rock walls bear the homes and art of the Ancestral Pueblo people’s 10,000-year history.
The fault line’s threat was discovered to be much more devastating than originally anticipated; the misjudgment in the laboratory’s safety and security was discovered by engineers planning a new plutonium facility.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory, also known as LANL, is operated for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration by the private LLC Los Alamos National Security. The lab describes its mission as “to develop and apply science and technology to ensure the safety, security and reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent” and to “reduce global threats.”