Some Los Alamos employees return to work

Some Los Alamos employees return to work

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

May 15—Managers are touring Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico today to determine when employees can return to work in the wake of wildfires that have threatened the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

Officials said only workers engaged in startup operations could return to the site. For the moment, employees are being warned to stay away from the complex until called by management to come back to work, said Ki Tecumseh, an Energy Department spokesman.

Although Tecumseh said no lab structures have been damaged by the wildfire, at least one building housing the main office area, where about 65 employees work, suffered extensive smoke damage. In addition, the telephone system is on the verge of being overwhelmed by messages unretrieved for the 10 days the inferno has blazed, Tecumseh said.

Announcements on a call-in hotline and on Energy Department Web pages urge lab employees to check their messages and delete as many as possible.

So far, two movable trailers at the lab have been damaged by the wildfires, which have burned nearly 43,000 acres and 400 homes, forcing nearly 25,000 residents to evacuate, officials said. The city of Los Alamos remains evacuated, although residents of nearby White Rock have been allowed to return home, officials said. No deaths or injuries were reported.

Paul Schumann, another spokesman, said the structure housing the world's third-fastest supercomputer, known as Blue Mountain, and others were unscathed by the blaze thanks to a robust design intended 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 last week. The temperature in the bunker remained steady, Schumann said.

The underground computers can be segregated from the rest of their building should it catch fire, Schumann said.

Today an investigation is expected to begin into why a brush burn was ordered in the area in spite of drought warnings and National Weather Service recommendations, officials said.

Bandelier National Monument Superintendent Roy Weaver, who acknowledged that he ordered the National Park Service to set a fire that escaped control, was suspended with pay last week, officials said. A report on the investigation has been promised by Thursday.

The burn went forward despite a severe drought warning issued months ago by the weather service, which said it faxed a warning to Bandelier National Monument shortly before the fire. The warning said winds and temperatures were about to rise and humidity at night would not be as high as normal, making conditions ideal for fire to spread.

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