ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Department of Energy announced Sunday that 17 workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad have tested positive for radiation contamination, an increase from 13 workers the department previously reported.
The radiation leak was detected Feb. 14 by a WIPP air monitor, and higher-than-normal levels of plutonium and americium, which are cancerous when consumed, were then found. The leak spread from underground, as plutonium was detected at an air sensor a half-mile away. It’s the first leak in the plant’s 15 years of operation.
Radioactive waste comes to WIPP from federal nuclear weapons research and production sites across the country, including Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The Department of Energy has repeatedly said the leak poses no threat to the environment or human health because contamination levels are relatively low.
The department had previously said it was unknown what health effects the workers who were exposed to radiation could experience, but Sunday’s news release said no adverse health effects are expected for any of the workers because the contamination levels are very low.
The four most recent workers to test positive for radiation had barely detectable levels of radiation in their systems, according to the news release.
The radiation was not inhaled by any of the workers, according to the news release.
Radiation and air quality instruments were lowered into some WIPP shafts over the weekend that were not in the path of the contamination, according to the news release, and no radiation contamination has been detected.
After tests on the hoisting equipment and salt handling and air intake shafts are completed, WIPP workers will go into the underground facility, which could be as soon as the end of this week, according to the news release.
Those workers will try to find the source of the leak and do more radiation tests as they go. They will then come up with a plan for how to eradicate the contamination.
Only essential employees are at the plant. The leak came soon after a truck caught fire in the deep mines of the plant. Nobody was injured in that incident, and officials say the leak is not connected to it.