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Health effect on exposed WIPP workers unknown

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A radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Feb. 14 was the first known leak at the nuclear waste storage site near Carlsbad since it opened 15 years ago. Above, a load of waste is moved in the underground storage site in April 2001. (Albuquerque Journal File)

A radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Feb. 14 was the first known leak at the nuclear waste storage site near Carlsbad since it opened 15 years ago. Above, a load of waste is moved in the underground storage site in April 2001. (Albuquerque Journal File)

More analysis is needed to determine how much radiation workers were exposed to during a recent leak at the nation’s underground nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico, officials said Thursday.

Preliminary tests have found that 13 workers who were working aboveground the night of the leak inhaled radioactive particles. Those results were announced at a news conference Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Energy and the contractor that runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

At Thursday’s news conference, officials emphasized that all radiation readings at the site have been at low levels, and it would be too soon to speculate about any potential health effects.

Officials haven’t said what the levels were in the area where the employees were working the night of Feb. 14, when an alert went off indicating a leak in the repository a half-mile below. More tests are being ordered on the workers as well as some employees who were at the site the next day.

Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership, speaks to a community meeting in Carlsbad on Monday. (Jeri Clausing/The Associated Press)

Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership, speaks to a community meeting in Carlsbad on Monday. (Jeri Clausing/The Associated Press)

The accident is the first known release of radiation since the site near Carlsbad began taking plutonium-contaminated waste from the nation’s nuclear bomb building sites 15 years ago. It came nine days after a truck hauling salt in the plant’s deep mines caught fire, but officials say they are confident the incidents are unrelated.

New Mexico’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to provide public health analysis and deploy mobile environmental monitoring units to WIPP.

“The health and safety of the Carlsbad community and WIPP personnel are our top priorities. It is critical to ensure the public has access to accurate, timely information,” the senators wrote in a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “As such, we would appreciate EPA’s analysis of this event, including an assessment of the amount of radiation that has been released into the atmosphere and how those releases compare to EPA standards of exposure that are considered safe and unsafe.”

WIPP officials said they can tell from their analyses of air samples in and around the plant that a container of waste leaked, but they haven’t been able to get underground to find out what caused it.

The Energy Department has released detailed information from air monitors around the site, which back their assertions that releases off site were below levels deemed unsafe.

A resident speaks during a community meeting in Carlsbad this week regarding a radiation leak from the nearby Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.  (Jeri Clausing/The Associated Press)

A resident speaks during a community meeting in Carlsbad this week regarding a radiation leak from the nearby Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. (Jeri Clausing/The Associated Press)

And they have said all indications are that a filtration system designed to immediately kick in when radiation is detected and keep 99.7 percent of contamination from being released aboveground worked.

But that the workers were exposed raises questions about those claims, according to Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center.

The systems “are in the guinea pig stage,” he said. “We know in theory what they were designed to do, but we don’t know how well they worked because they have never been tried.”

Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership, told Thursday’s news conference that he hopes to be able to send probes within a matter of days into the mines soon to get readings to determine when investigators can re-enter the repository.

WIPP is the nation’s first deep underground nuclear repository and the only facility in the country that can store plutonium-contaminated clothing and tools from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other federal nuclear sites.

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