Lab: Radiation detected above ground near WIPP site east of Carlsbad

Current-Argus file photo  Underground operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant have been suspended until a federal team of investigators can visit theCarlsbad Current-Argus – by Zack Ponce

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.

Tests by the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, a division of the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University, showed evidence of trace amounts of americium and plutonium on an air filter Wednesday afternoon at a sampling station off the WIPP Access Road.  

Current-Argus file photo  This aerial photo shows the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, 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.

WIPP will celebrate its 15th anniversary on March 26 of processing and disposing of TRU waste from federally owned cleanup sites around the country. Asked on Monday if the recent events could impact the future mission of WIPP, Gill responded, “We certainly hope not.”

The Department of Energy planned to issue a press release Wednesday night, well after the Current-Argus’ deadline. Earlier this week, the Current-Argus filed two Freedom of Information Act requests to the DOE for further information about the recent incidents, and is awaiting the documentation.

Reporter Zack Ponce can be reached at (575) 689-7402.

2 thoughts on “Lab: Radiation detected above ground near WIPP site east of Carlsbad

  1. But our government said it was “contained” in a certain part of the building. So they lied? 🙄

    UGH! There I go again, trusting my government. I gotta stop thinking like a good Communist.

  2. ““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.”

    Yep, it’s all speculation, folks. It’s no longer a conspiracy theory. It’s no longer true or untrue. It’s all “speculation”. That’s the new fad for this year. “Speculation”.

    Hey, there will be reports of people losing their hair, getting sick from the water as well as cancer near that area, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was from that area. It’s all “speculation”.

    And don’t forget Fukushima has been releasing radiation in the air and has polluted the Pacific and West Coast beaches and animals are dying of and people have been reporting loss of hair and headaches and don’t forget the government raised the safe levels again to the point that in the next 100 years or less, 1 in 40 people will get cancer instead of 1 in maybe a million. But hey, it’s all “SPECULATION”!!!!!


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