By William Boardman
Nobody’s ever tried to fix an underground radiation accident before
More than two months after plutonium and americium leaked from the supposedly leak-proof underground nuclear weapons waste storage facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) still does not know what caused the leak almost half a mile underground, but on April 17, an exploration crew found increasing radiation levels before retreating to safety. The DOE plans to send more teams, or robots, into the storage area to find the source of the radioactive contamination.
The nuclear weapons waste facility, carved into an underground salt deposit, is known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP. It is the only repository for U.S. nuclear weapons waste and has been closed since undetermined amounts of plutonium and americium leaked into the atmosphere on February 14, 2014. This was the first known radioactive leak from WIPP, which its planners said would contain the nuclear weapons waste for 10,000 years without leaking.
As has been true at WIPP for months now, reliable, detailed information has been scarce. U.S. officials didn’t even inform the public that there had been a leak until four days after the event. Currently, the government is not saying what levels of radiation their teams have encountered during four trips into the storage area 2,130 feet underground. An Associated Press report carried this typically opaque bit of public information on April 17: “Tammy Reynolds, the U.S. Department of Energy’s deputy recovery manager, told a community meeting in Carlsbad that more trips need to be made into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to further investigate the accident, but officials hope to have more information next week.”
Government says irradiated workers are just fine
Officially, the radioactive release of February 14 contaminated 21 WIPP workers. These workers, who are employed by the government contractor that manages WIPP, ingested small amounts of plutonium or americium, either of which will remain a threat to the workers’ health for a long time (plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years; americium 242 has a half-life of 141 years).
Officially, the workers’ “exposure levels were extremely low, and the employees are unlikely to experience any health effects as a result.” Unlikely, perhaps, but with highly radioactive alpha radiation emitters lodged in their bodies, their chance of serious health issues has increased, and will not likely decrease. The workers were all working above ground when they were exposed. Reportedly there were no workers underground at the time of the accident.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant currently has more than 5,000 cubic feet of nuclear weapons waste in 41 packages that are not isolated. They are stored above ground in a parking area unit and a waste handling building. This waste arrived prior to the accidents at WIPP and the accidents prevented the waste from being moved underground.