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Plane monitors fire area

The government sent a plane equipped with radiation monitors over the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory Wednesday as a 110-square-mile wildfire burned at its doorstep, putting thousands of scientific experiments on hold for days.

Lab authorities described the monitoring as a precaution, and they, along with outside experts on nuclear engineering, expressed confidence that the blaze would not scatter radioactive material, as some in surrounding communities feared.

"Our facilities, our nuclear materials are all safe; they're accounted for, and they're protected," said Charles McMillan, the lab's director.

The twin-engine plane, which can take digital photographs and video as well as thermal and night images, had been sent to New York City to take air samples after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"It can look for a wide variety of chemical constituents in a plume, and the plumes can originate from fires, from explosions, from a wide variety of sources," said Kevin Roark, lab spokesman.

And in a testament to the sophisticated research done at Los Alamos, the plane was developed with technology from the lab, the desert installation that built the atomic bomb during World War II.

The pillars of smoke that can be seen from Albuquerque, 60 miles away, have people on edge. The fire also has cast a haze as far away as Kansas. But officials said they analyzed samples taken Tuesday night from some of the lab's monitors and the results showed nothing abnormal in the smoke.

Anti-nuclear groups have sounded the alarm about thousands of 55-gallon drums containing low-grade nuclear waste -- gloves, tools and other contaminated items -- about two miles from the fire.

Lab officials said the blaze was highly unlikely to reach the drums, and, in any case, the steel containers can withstand flames and will be sprayed with fire-resistant foam if necessary.

Los Alamos remained a virtual ghost town, with no residents, lab employees or shopkeepers around.

The economic impact of shutting down the town was already weighing on the minds of city officials and business owners.

"Everybody here is a small business," said Ron Selvage, owner of the Best Western Hilltop House, the only hotel that was open and filled with firefighters, helicopter pilots and journalists. "We'll be all right, but all these other businesses still have the same bills they have to pay and no money coming in."

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