The wildfire raging through the New Mexico town of Los Alamos continues to threaten the nation's premier nuclear weapons lab, and now residents throughout the region fear that contaminated smoke could make further evacuations necessary. As of midday on June 28, the flames had crawled to within 50 feet of the facility famous for being the birthplace of the atomic bomb. A cache of 30,000 drums, each containing 55 gallons of plutonium-contaminated waste, could be compromised if the fires reach the lab, potentially releasing a deadly plume of radioactive smoke into the environment. "If it gets to this contamination, it's over  — not just for Los Alamos, but for Santa Fe and all of us in between," said Mai Ting, a resident who lives nearby. Lab officials said there is little risk of the fire reaching the drums, which are said to be contained on a paved area with few trees nearby; nuclear watchdog groups aren't so confident. "The concern is that these drums will get so hot that they'll burst. That would put this toxic material into the plume. It's a concern for everybody," said Joni Arends of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety. The lab covers more than 36 square miles and includes about 2,000 buildings at nearly four dozen sites, including research facilities and waste disposal sites. Currently lab personnel and the state environment department are monitoring the air for radioactivity and particulates. If contamination is detected, evacuation plans will likely need to be enacted for any city downwind of the smoke.

(Sources: Huffington Post, BBC, Associated Press)


Willie Soon, one of the world's leading climate change skeptics, has admitted to taking more than $1 million from the oil industry over the last decade. His admission came following a Greenpeace investigation into the matter, which also revealed freedom of information documents showing that Soon had conspired in 2003 with other prominent climate skeptics to weaken a major assessment of global warming being conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. The investigation showed that Soon had received money from Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute and Koch Industries, as well as Southern Company, one of the largest electricity producers in the U.S. Furthermore, every new grant he received since 2002 has been from either oil or coal interests. Although Soon has admitted to receiving the money, he has remained adamant that the financial benefits did not sway his scientific results. "I have never been motivated by financial reward in any of my scientific research," he said. "I would have accepted money from Greenpeace if they had offered it to do my research." Soon is one of only a few scientists to publish in peer-reviewed literature denying climate change. He is well-known for denying that the 20th century was a uniquely extreme climatic period, challenging the "hockey stick" graph of temperature records, and even questioning the health risks of mercury emissions from coal. Soon has also downplayed the idea that polar bears are threatened by climate change.

(Sources: The Guardian, Reuters)


A floating piece of orbital space trash nearly collided with the International Space Station yesterday, causing its six-member crew to "abandon ship." Normally orbital debris is detected with enough time to spare for the station to maneuver out of the way, but this time the crew was taken by surprise. By the time the debris was detected, the crew only had enough time to board the station's "lifeboat," otherwise known as the Soyuz spacecraft, a Russian-built escape capsule. The astronauts anxiously waited there for half an hour as the space trash narrowly missed the station by as little as 750 feet. The debris was described by NASA as an "unknown object of unknown size." Collisions with space junk are a growing concern, as Earth's orbit has become congested with as much as 4 million pounds of space debris — nuts, bolts, metal and carbon, even whole spacecraft. Only 10 percent of all objects in Earth's orbit are satellites, while the rest is currently trash. Even small objects present a danger to astronauts in orbit, where trash the size of an egg can travel at dangerous speeds. Earth's orbit has become so polluted that it's been described as a minefield. "Everything is spaced out just some 100 meters from each other. One satellite gets in the way of the next. It's way too crowded," said Gubarev, a renowned space journalist. 

(Sources: USA Today, Reuters)


Leading climate researchers released a "state of the climate" report yesterday, elevating concerns that efforts to curb global warming have been too weak. In fact, the world's climate is not only continuing to warm, it's adding greenhouse gases faster than ever before. The researchers noted that the global temperature has been warmer than the 20th century average every month for more than 25 years, and that carbon dioxide increased by 2.60 parts per million in the atmosphere in 2010, which is more than the average annual increase seen from 1980-2010. "The indicators show unequivocally that the world continues to warm," said Thomas R. Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center. Researchers also cautioned that more extreme weather events should also be expected as the Earth warms. "Scientists have concluded just recently that the link between climate change and extreme weather is not so much theoretical anymore as it is observational," said Fred Guterl, executive editor of Scientific American magazine. The 2010 report adds information about lake surfaces and permafrost temperatures for the first time, bringing the total number of climate indicators considered to 41. The report, which involved 368 researchers from 45 countries, lists 2010 as tied with 2005 for the warmest year on record. It is set to be published by the American Meteorological Society.

(Sources: Huffington Post)

— Today's Daily Briefing was reported by Bryan Nelson. Russell McLendon is out on assignment.

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Photo (wildfire): Wiki Commons/USDA Forest Service
Photo (Willie Soon): katesheets/Flickr
Photo (space junk): European Space Agency
Photo (hot sun): { pranav }/Flickr

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Wed. 6/29/2011
Nuclear smoke at Los Alamos, space junk threatens astronauts, and more.