New Mexico wildfire creeps up to Los Alamos nuke lab (PHOTOS)

The staff of Los Alamos National Laboratory doesn't have to go into work today or tomorrow to do... whatever it is they do there. Says the website of the lab, the birthplace of the atomic bomb:

"Los Alamos National Laboratory tonight announced it will remain closed through Thursday, June 30 because of risks presented by the Las Conchas Fire and the mandatory evacuation of Los Alamos town site. Laboratory facilities will be closed for all activities and nonessential employees are directed to remain off site."

Fire crews today staged controlled burns to remove possible fuel sources that the wildfire could use to advance on the nuclear waste-holding facility. Lab brass have been assuring people that the site is well protected with safeguards (tree thinning, those controlled burns) put in place after the immense Cerro Grande Fire destroyed more than 100 lab structures in 2000. A plane is flying above to make sure there's no release of radioactive smoke, and even if the fires gets a finger or two inside the perimeter, there are contingency plans. Here's how the Associated Press put it:

Residents downwind have expressed concern about the potential of a radioactive smoke plume if the flames reach thousands of barrels of waste stored in above-ground tents at the lab.

Top lab officials and fire managers say there have been no releases of toxins. They say they're confident the flames won't reach key buildings or areas where radioactive waste is stored. As a last resort, foam could be sprayed on the barrels containing items that might have been contaminated through contact with radioactive materials to ensure they aren't damaged by fire, they said.

The Cerro Grande fire began as a controlled burn that got out of hand. The cause of the current conflagration, located in the Jemez Mountains of the Santa Fe National Forest, is under investigation. The Ponderosa Pine-gobbling blaze has demolished about 70,000 acres and is just 3 percent contained, according to InciWeb. You can see it churn out vast masses of smoke in the above photo, which was taken Monday by a crew member aboard the International Space Station from a height of 235 miles. (Super-high res version.) The lab is slightly right of center.

Here are some more photos of the smoky skies around Los Alamos, posted on the facility's Flickr page. Check out the pools of fire burning in the hills: