Researchers at the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring & Research Center believe Waste Isolation Pilot Plant officials are being unnecessarily cautious by continuing to filter air leaving the underground.
A paper presented in March at the 2017 Waste Management Conference in Phoenix claims radiation levels in the air underground and air being ventilated out into the environment contain benign levels of radiation.
The solution presented by WIPP is a new, permanent ventilation system on the north end of the mine that will require the addition of a new shaft, expected to cost as much as half-a-billion dollars and be completed in 2021.
Should the HEPA filters be switched off, though, airflow would be restored to the original level of 425,000 cubic feet per minute.
The Department of Energy says it isn’t as easy as flipping a switch though.
“There’s a lot of things that have to be considered to make that decision,” said WIPP Deputy Recovery Project Manager Tammy Reynolds at a March 16 public meeting.
Reynolds said more radiation level data needs to be gathered from other points aside from inside the exhaust shaft where CEMRC measures.
“Right now in the underground, there’s data that we get that says we have to have people in respirators,” she said. “I don’t think we want to put our workers in a position where they come back with a positive bio-assay (test which measures concentration of radioactivity in the body).”
Rick Fuentes was one of the workers on site when the release occurred in 2014. Twenty-two workers tested positive for low levels of radiation that are not expected to adversely affect their long-term health after the release, according to the Department of Energy.
“Until we get out of Panel 7, we’ll continue to wear respirators and two sets of (protective suits),” Fuentes said. “The experts can say all they want but at the end of the day, it’s about how your workers feel.”
Fuentes said he did not believe the workforce at WIPP would feel safe entering contaminated areas without the protective measures.
In their official response to the paper, the Department of Energy said additional efforts also need to be made to mitigate contaminated areas in the underground before considering running in non-filtration mode.
“Leading the way”
Thakur said she hopes the site will switch to non-filtration mode and “lead the way” in showing that radiation is not inherently a bad thing.