Increased levels of radiation detected from leak at WIPP

February 24, 2014 • Local News

Slightly elevated levels of airborne radiation have been detected in Southeastern New Mexico from a leak at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, according to a U.S. Department of Energy news release.

The continuing radiation monitoring [auth] resulted in a town meeting being scheduled in Carlsbad between state, federal and local officials and the public.

The DOE said Monday the results are from samples collected last week at numerous air monitoring stations at and around the WIPP site. Last week, DOE officials confirmed the first-ever leak at the facility. It stores plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other government nuclear sites.

The results are consistent with the kinds of waste stored at the plant, but officials say there’s no public health threat.

Carlsbad’s mayor scheduled a community meeting Monday evening with officials from the Department of Energy and the Radiation Control Bureau of the New Mexico Environment Department.

“The New Mexico Environment Department has seen no data to suggest any health threats to people have occurred as a result of the Feb. 14 incident that led to a release of radiation outside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” said Jim Winchester, communications director of the state Environment Department. “The New Mexico Environment Department and the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center continue to monitor radiation levels and will notify the public of any health threats if they were to occur.”

Winchester said the Carlsbad officials scheduled their Monday meeting to alleviate fears of residents based on misinformation that has been circulating.

Waste shipments to the site were halted earlier this month after a truck caught fire underground. Officials say they don’t think the incidents are related.

Winchester said he knew of no plans to hold a similar meeting in Roswell.

“The health and safety of the Carlsbad community and WIPP personnel are our top priorities,” U.S Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich said in a statement released Thursday.

“It is critical to ensure the public has access to accurate, timely information, and as the response to this event continues, we urge the Department of Energy to work with the community to address questions and concerns.

“We continue to be in close contact with officials at the Department of Energy and WIPP as they work to determine the source of the airborne radiation and continue their recovery efforts.

In the statement, the senators said they were pleased that experts from Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories are expected to be among those assisting DOE.

“We are confident their expertise will be a valuable addition,” they said.

WIPP is continuously monitoring the environment, and the latest air monitoring results ranged from 1.3 to 4.4 DPM based on preliminary analyses, according to a Department of Energy news release.

Samples were collected from several air monitoring stations on and around the WIPP site. After collecting the filters at each station, initial on-site analyses are completed before the samples are sent to the WIPP laboratories for more detailed final analyses. It usually takes about a week to analyze a set of samples and prepare preliminary data at the WIPP laboratories.

There are also on-site air monitors that trigger an alarm in real time if airborne radioactive material is detected.

“There are no shortcuts,” said Joe Franco, manager of the Carlsbad Field Office, which has responsibility for WIPP. “Our scientists and technicians must complete detailed, comprehensive protocols to ensure the information we produce is accurate.”

Numerous air, soil and water samples have been collected on and around the WIPP site since the radiological event on Feb.14, according to a DOE news release. Additional results will be made available as the analyses are completed.

The Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, which is operated by New Mexico State University, is also conducting additional independent environmental monitoring and testing on and around the WIPP site, as is the state’s Environment Department Radiation Control Bureau, Winchester said.

WIPP, which began waste disposal operations in 1999, is located 26 miles outside of Carlsbad.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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