Department of Energy officials say radiation levels detected in and around the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository are consistent with a leak at the southeastern New Mexico facility.
Carlsbad field office manager Jose Franco said Thursday that readings from sensors above and below ground indicate the radiation is coming from waste stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. But officials won’t know what caused the leak until they can get underground to investigate. That could be weeks.
On Saturday, the DOE announced an underground monitor detected airborne radiation. On Wednesday, an independent monitoring center said it also found evidence of an above ground escape.
Franco says it is the first such release from the plant since it opened 15 years ago. He also said the levels are still well below those deemed unsafe.
Radiation at New Mexico underground nuclear waste storage facility prompts investigation
The U.S. Department of Energy has appointed a team to investigate the detection of radiation in and near a southeastern New Mexico facility that is America’s only underground nuclear waste repository.
The assessment of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant will be conducted by an accident investigation board consisting of department officials and representatives of health and safety agencies, the department said late Wednesday.
The board will be assisted by fire protection, ventilation and mine safety experts, the department said.
An underground monitor at the plant near Carlsbad detected airborne radiation late Friday night, and an independent monitor centre said it found radioactive isotopes in an air sensor a half-mile (kilometre) from the plant.
A filter from a monitor northwest of the plant had trace amounts of americium and plutonium, said Russell Hardy, director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, an arm of New Mexico State University.
The detected levels are highest ever detected at or around the site but also far below those deemed unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency, Hardy said.
The department said it is developing a plan for personnel to re-enter the plant and that shipments to the plant have been suspended. However, no shipments were scheduled from Feb. 14 through March 10 because of an annual maintenance work, the department said.
WIPP is the nation’s first and only operating deep geological nuclear repository. It takes plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other defence projects, and buries it in rooms cut from underground salt beds.