Plutonium Release Detected following Underground Fire at New Mexico Nuke Waste Dump
Lab: Radiation detected above ground near WIPP site east of Carlsbad
By Zack Ponce – Las Cruces Sun – 19 February, 2014
CARLSBAD — Traces of radiation have been found approximately half a mile northwest of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a federal nuclear waste repository approximately 26 miles east of Carlsbad.
“The levels detected during this time period are higher than the normal background levels of radioactivity from transuranic elements commonly found at this sampling station, thus their presence during this specific time frame appears to indicate a small release of radioactive particles from the WIPP underground exhaust shaft in the brief moments following when the radiation event occurred and when the WIPP ventilation system shifted to the filtration mode,” said Russell Hardy, the director for the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, in a news release. Analysis of the filter found trace amounts of americium and plutonium.
Hardy said even though small amounts of radiation were detected between Tuesday, Feb. 11, and Sunday, Feb. 16, it’s important to note that radiation levels have been “very low and are well below any level of public and environmental hazard.”
“At this time there is no concern,” said John Heaton, the chairman of the Carlsbad Nuclear Task Force. “We definitely know that the amounts are miniscule. I think the risks are extremely low and I certainly have no worries about it personally.”
Heaton and Hardy both agree that the americium and plutonium isotopes are so heavy, that they won’t travel far from the original source. Only a large wind gust or human-caused incident could cause a spread of the radiation from where it currently lies, according to Hardy.
A second air sampling station located approximately 11.8 miles southeast of the WIPP facility on Highway 128 showed no detection of radioactive particles according to CEMRC. Scientists were able to collect a third sample near the WIPP exhaust shaft on Tuesday and results will be released as soon as the analysis on the air filter has been completed.
Heaton cautioned the public to not jump to any rash conclusions.
“Until we really know, it’s all speculation,” he said. “Even though it’s very discouraging that there was a release, it’s strictly speculation about what caused that. You have to realize that all the containers are closed and sealed (underground in WIPP). Until they are able to go back down and examine the waste, we could find out it’s something even different than we think.”
Continuous air monitors, or CAMs, first detected airborne radiation in the salt mines underground at WIPP on Feb. 14 at 11:30 p.m. and the air ventilation system immediately stopped the flow of outside air, according to the Department of Energy. The radiation was present downwind of Panel 7, Room 7, where current transuranic waste had been disposed.
Operations at WIPP have been halted since the morning of Feb. 5, when a vehicle used to haul salt underground in the north mine caught on fire, causing immediate evacuations of all personnel to the surface.
“We don’t believe there is a connection between the earlier salt hauler truck event and this event,” said Roger Nelson, acting DOE spokesman, on Saturday when WIPP released information of the radiation leak. The statement was later retracted by DOE spokeswoman Deb Gill on Monday who said that the agency would not speculate on any potential causes for either incident or any potential linkage of the two events. …more (http://www NULL.lcsun-news NULL.com/ci_25179328/lab-radiation-detected-above-ground-near-wipp-site)