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WIPP outlines plan to investigate radiation leak

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The contractor that operates southeastern New Mexico’s nuclear waste repository on Thursday outlined a plan for re-entering the site, which has been closed since a radiation event last month.

“The objective is to return the facility to a safe, compliant transuranic operation,” said Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership, which operates the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

WIPP stores transuranic waste, leftovers of the nation’s nuclear weapons program, such as gloves, boots and other low-level waste contaminated by radiation. The waste is stored in containers stacked underground in excavated salt mines.

Sharif spoke at a town hall in Carlsbad attended by several dozen members of the community and state and federal officials.

He said WIPP will first deploy probes underground to determine conditions. Personnel wearing protective gear will re-enter the underground to check for cross-contamination between two underground shafts.

If those areas aren’t contaminated, WIPP can establish a safe base down in the mine, said David Klaus, Department of Energy deputy under secretary for management and performance.

Weather permitting, robotic probes may enter the WIPP underground as early as tomorrow or the weekend, Joe Franco, manager of the Department of Energy Carlsbad Field Office, said during a news conference Thursday.

When the working area is deemed safe, Sharif said WIPP will investigate two panels where waste is being stored — panel six which was in the process of being sealed, and panel seven, which was active — to determine the cause of the Feb. 14 radiation leak.

The levels of radiation measured near the facility have been below those considered actionable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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