Energy says supercomputers, secrets are safe from inferno

Energy says supercomputers, secrets are safe from inferno

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

MAY 12'Energy Department officials told GCN that the nation's nuclear secrets and two of the world's fastest supercomputers remain safe from the inferno that has forced the evacuation of two New Mexico towns near the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Two movable trailers at Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, have been damaged by the wildfire that has burned nearly 30,000 acres and 400 homes and forced nearly 20,000 residents to evacuate, Energy spokeswoman Tami Toops said.

Los Alamos and nearby White Rock have been evacuated, officials said. No deaths or injuries have been reported.

Los Alamos lab employees were hosing down buildings this morning in an effort to prevent any further damage to the complex, Toops said. Fires continue to burn on lab property but pose no threat to buildings or structures containing nuclear secrets, supercomputers, and plutonium or other hazardous materials, she said from a temporary command post in Albuquerque, N.M.

Paul Schumann, another spokesman, said the structures were designed to withstand a direct hit from a large jetliner. Flames came within 300 yards of a plutonium storage facility and burned over a bunker housing explosives, he said, but caused no damage. The temperature in the bunker remained safe, Schumann said.

The supercomputers are housed underground and can be segregated from the rest of the building should the structure catch fire, Schumann said. Ironically, Los Alamos National Lab is home to Nirvana Blue, a supercomputer that scientists use to model wildfires.

Los Alamos' biggest supercomputer, the ASCI Blue Mountain, is part of the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative. The supercomputer is isolated from the fire by parking lots, a roadway and land without vegetation, according to George VanDegrift, SGI's national account manager for Energy. SGI is the prime contractor for the 6,144-processor Blue Mountain, which is one of the world's fastest computers.

VanDegrift said his only concern about the supercomputer was a power loss, although that is a remote possibility because the computing center has backup power available.

'There are some contingency plans that cover securing the information if need be,' Schumann said. 'But [the computers] are in underground structures safe from calamity even worse than this.'

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson on Thursday flew to the site, where he met New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.). Johnson said he is "hoping and praying for the best."

'We can assure the country and New Mexico that our nuclear materials are safe,' Richardson said Thursday after inspecting damage at the scene. No unusual radioactivity was detected Thursday, Schumann said.

Lab security officials as well as 150 National Guardsmen are on the scene to protect secrets and prevent looting in the deserted town of Los Alamos, 70 miles north of Albuquerque, Toops said. Los Alamos is essentially a company town for the weapons laboratory, which employees 7,000 people at buildings scattered throughout the city, Toops said. The town is on a mesa at an altitude of 7,600 feet.

External electrical power to some parts of Los Alamos has been interrupted, said eyewitness Deborah Martinez, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who observed downed power lines in the area.

Martinez told GCN that winds in the area have decreased today to approximately 20 mph, down from about 50 mph yesterday. Yesterday's high winds prevented the deployment of aircraft to drop slurry on the blaze, she said. The flights were likely to resume today.

Firefighting today is especially important, emergency officials said, because forecasters predict calm winds and cooler temperatures, giving firefighters a better chance of controlling the blaze.

Bandelier National Monument Superintendent Roy Weaver, who acknowledged that he ordered the National Park Service to set a brush fire that spread out of control, has been suspended with pay, officials said. The park service has promised to investigate the matter, and the state's senators have called for a congressional inquiry.

The burn was conducted despite a severe drought warning issued months ago by the National Weather Service, which said it faxed a warning to Bandelier National Monument shortly before the fire. The warning said that weather conditions did not favor a burn because winds and temperatures were about to rise and humidity at night would not be as high as normal, making conditions ripe for the fire to spread, officials said.

Staff writers Patricia Daukantas, Wilson P. Dizard III and Trudy Walsh contributed to this report.

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