Probes may enter WIPP facility today to seek cause of leak

March 6, 2014 • Local News

Officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant say they could begin sending probes into the facility to determine the cause of the radiation leak as early as today.

Joe Franco, manager of the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office, said plans to begin sending probes today into the mines to determine what caused the radiation leak on Feb. 14, if conditions are suitable for beginning the work.

“Factors that could affect that decision include wind, and even rain,” Franco said in a news conference Thursday evening. If weather allows, probes should be deployed into the plant within the next few days in an attempt to determine the cause of the leak.

Officials have said no employees will enter the facility until probes [auth] can be used to determine the cause of the leak and the extent of the damage. One scenario officials are considering is that a ceiling or a wall of the storage facility collapsed, causing the leak.

Franco was joined by David Klaus, U.S. Department of Energy deputy undersecretary, and David Huizenga, senior advisor for the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management for a town hall meeting and a news teleconference in Carlsbad.

“I was heartened to see the WIPP team is dedicated and ready to understand and work with us,” Huizenga said of the plant employees.

Huizenga said the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency verified the DOE’s analysis that the radiation leak was minimal. “The safety of our employees and of the public are key items in our activities as we go forward.”

Some of the uncertainty was quelled late Wednesday when officials announced that the level of particles being captured by monitoring stations in the Carlsbad area had decreased significantly and were close to normal. Officials said further testing on the 13 workers who were at the plant at the time of the leak shows they aren’t likely to experience any serious health effects.

The repository stopped taking shipments in early February when a truck hauling salt through the underground mine caught fire. Several workers were treated for smoke inhalation, and the mine was temporarily closed.

Nine days later, sensors alerted to a release of radiation from the underground portion of the mine. Monitors as far as half a mile away later detected elevated levels of plutonium and americium in the air.

The DOE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the repository’s managers have all said there’s no public health threat, but watchdog groups have questioned whether officials are holding back information related to the leak.

“I am a born and raised Carlsbad kid,” Franco said. “I have family here, and it is very important to me that safety is key. I have a lot of experience from my work in other facilities, and we are following safety procedures. To me, it is key to keep the community safe.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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