Team to re-enter New Mexico nuclear waste site after radiation leak

Thu Mar 27, 2014 9:24pm EDT

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(Reuters) - An investigative team plans to re-enter an underground nuclear waste site in New Mexico next week for the first time since an accidental release of unsafe levels of radiation there last month, a U.S. Energy Department official said Thursday.

U.S. authorities now say that 21 workers at the Carlsbad-area "waste isolation pilot project" (WIPP) were exposed to radiation after the accidental leak from the site, which stores waste from U.S. nuclear labs and weapons production facilities.

Eight workers will test air for contamination as they seek to make their way into an ancient salt formation half a mile below ground where radioactive waste is stored, Energy Department spokesman Bradley Bugger said in a statement.

The team will wear protective clothing and use self-contained breathing devices in a mission designed to determine the cause of the February 14 accident.

Testing of surface air in and around the Energy Department complex has shown elevated levels of radiation since the mishap, but those have steadily decreased. None reached concentrations considered harmful to human health or the environment, Bugger said.

He added that four additional employees at the facility in the Chihuahuan Desert have tested positive for contamination based on more stringent testing protocols. That brings to 21 the number of workers who inhaled or ingested particles emitted from the decay of radioisotopes like plutonium while working above ground on February 14 or the following day.

The amount of radiation the workers took into their bodies is very low and they are not expected to experience ill health effects, Bugger said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernard Orr)

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Comments (15)
hawkeye19 wrote:
Great job.

Mar 27, 2014 10:42pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
CStansbury wrote:
You say “since an accidental release of unsafe levels of radiation there last month” in your opening paragraph. You later say “None reached concentrations considered harmful to human health or the environment.”

I highly doubt that the first statement came from any sort of official release. Might it be editorial in nature? Why the sensationalism?

The activity measured on the one air filter was < 1 Becquerel. That’s less than one decay event per second. Your own body has thousands of Becquerels of activity in it right now. Additionally, the intake measured in workers was so small that followup tests couldn’t even find it (at least that was the case for the first set found).

Trying to spin this into anything more than it is just shows a complete lack of journalistic integrity. I would put a substantial amount of money on a bet that the amount of radioactivity released to the air and the workers pales in comparison to that seen by workers in coal plants or natural gas fracking sites in a single week. Just FYI: a typical coal plant releases 18 tons of Uranium and Thorium per year. That’s about 4 pounds/hour.

Mar 28, 2014 12:15pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
SCGuardian wrote:
Beware! Salt mines might not be the safest place to store radioactive items that may take 10,000 to 20,000 to decay to a half-life value. With the possible climate changes that may occur, water incursion will have dire consequences within these mines.

Mar 28, 2014 1:28pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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