Officials with the contractor that runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant say no plans are in place to test Chaves County for radiation following a Feb. 14 incident in which radioactive material was released within the facility.
“There have been no tests conducted at this time,” said Donavan Mager, a spokesman for Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, in an email on Friday. “The possibility of future tests or sampling will be determined by further analytical results and findings.”
If residents of southern Chaves County have concerns about the possibility of being exposed to radiation, they can seek testing in Carlsbad, Mager said.
“We are informing residents if they believe it is necessary to be tested to contact the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring & Research Center for a free whole body count. For an appointment, call 575-234-5530.”
Mager said WIPP officials encourage county officials in areas farther from Carlsbad to contact Don Scott, bureau chief for Response and Recovery, New Mexico Homeland Security and Emergency Management, if they have concerns about radiation.
Karen Sanders, director of the Roswell/Chaves County Office of Emergency Management, said she has had a few inquiries this week from the public about the radiation leak. She also said there are no plans to perform testing in the county.
“I am not aware of any plans to do soil testing near WIPP,” she said.
“We want to ensure the safety of the citizens of Chaves County,” Sanders said. “We continue to work with WIPP officials as well as Eddy County Emergency Management.”
Thirteen workers at the underground nuclear waste dump have tested positive for radiation exposure after a recent leak, officials reported on Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Energy and the contractor that runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant declined to comment further on the preliminary test results announced Wednesday.
Elevated radiation levels have been detected in the air around the plant, but officials have said the readings are too low to constitute a public health threat.
And they have said that all indications are that a HEPA filtration system designed to immediately kick in when radiation is detected and keep 99.7 percent of contamination from being released above ground worked flawlessly.
On Friday, officials still were not saying what caused the leak, or how much radioactive material was thought to have leaked in the WIPP facility.
“The Recovery Plan submitted by Nuclear Waste Partnership to the Carlsbad (U.S. Department of Energy) Field Office provides strategies that will lead to answer these questions,” Mager said. “We will learn a great deal once we enter the mine, but will not rush to do so until all re-entry activities have been performed and it is safe for our workers to re-enter.”
The accident is the first-known release of radiation since the dump near Carlsbad began taking plutonium-contaminated waste from the nation’s nuclear bomb-building sites 15 years ago.
Officials said they can tell from their analyses of air samples in and around the plant that a container of waste leaked, but it could be weeks before they can get underground to find out what caused it. Possible scenarios include a ceiling collapse or a forklift puncturing a canister, Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership, said Monday before a community meeting in Carlsbad.
Mager said officials will not be able to determine the cause of the leak until they are able to send personnel back into the facility.
“When we learn the cause of the release, we will make that information available through our normal channels, including the media,” Mager said.
The radioactive material is stored underground in metal barrels. Mager said WIPP has used the current barrel manufacturer for the last several years, but declined to name the barrel manufacturer.
“The manufacturer tests the barrels to meet Department of Transportation requirements,” Mager said. “The site where the barrels are coming from certifies the barrels meet all DOT certified requirements. We perform container integrity inspections on the barrels when they are placed.”