ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A team of workers is scheduled to venture underground today for the first time since a radiation leak closed down the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a repository for nuclear waste, more than a month ago.
Eight radiological control, mine operations and mine rescue experts will go down into the mine through the salt shaft to survey conditions, WIPP said in a statement Monday.
Their goal will be to check for airborne radiation, ensure communications including a mine pager and phone are working, and establish a safe base for operations underground, WIPP said.
A small amount of radiation escaped WIPP in mid-February, and the storage facility – carved out of salt beds deep below the surface – has been closed to shipments ever since. WIPP has been preparing to send workers back underground for weeks, including developing detailed safety plans.
Some 35 workers have been training to go underground wearing anti-contamination suits and oxygen tanks, and they have been practicing in a nearby potash mine. WIPP has said that workers have been rehearsing “all potential scenarios that might unfold during the re-entry process.”
The manned re-entry is the third step of a seven-step plan toward eventually re-opening the facility, the only one of its kind in the country. Once the cause of the radiation leak is found, WIPP has said it will determine how to clean up or mitigate the hazard underground.
WIPP said it will take multiple entries before an investigating team is dispatched to the suspected source of the leak in the nuclear waste storage area. If the first team scheduled to go down finds no contamination, a second team will enter the mine to survey conditions in the next stretch of territory, between the salt shaft and air intake shaft, WIPP said.
WIPP also said Monday that a group of workers would be called in to clean the waste hoist tower, which is caked with soot from an underground truck fire that also occurred in February.