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Salt-hauling truck catches fire at WIPP

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A fire at an underground radioactive waste disposal site near Carlsbad was left smoldering Wednesday after employees were safely evacuated.

A truck used to haul salt caught fire at the north end of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, according to Roger Nelson, chief scientist and spokesman for the site. The fire did not occur near the waste container storage areas, he said.

By late Wednesday, a mine rescue team had re-entered the mine with approval of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, according to WIPP spokeswoman Sona Herrick. She said declining carbon monoxide levels indicated the blaze was burning out.

WIPP suspended operations for today and halted waste shipments to the site.

The facility stores “transuranic waste,” leftovers of nuclear weapons research and testing from the country’s past defense activities, according to the Department of Energy website. That waste includes clothing, tools, rags and other debris contaminated with radioactive elements, largely plutonium.

Nelson said the cause of the fire remained unknown late Wednesday.

Employees transported to a hospital for possible smoke inhalation were released Wednesday, according to a WIPP statement.

“I believe the response was timely and proportionate,” Nelson said during a conference call.

In a statement, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., praised the emergency response and said, “It is critically important to note that at no point did the fire threaten the waste disposed of at the WIPP, nor was the community or public ever at risk.”

Herrick confirmed that the truck that caught fire is not used to carry radioactive waste.

At WIPP, salt is mined to create sprawling underground storage rooms for the discarded radioactive debris that is delivered there from around the country.

“This kind of accident is not supposed to be able to happen at WIPP,” said Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque. “A fire in any mine is a very bad thing. And it’s never supposed to happen at WIPP.”

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