It’s been two months since a radiation leak shut down New Mexico’s geologic nuclear waste repository and two weeks since crews first went underground to explore the cause.
So why is it taking so long to find out what happened?
“The fundamental point is there is no example in the world of a radiologically contaminated underground salt mine,” said Don Hancock, who runs the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque. “They really do have to make it up as they go, and they want to be careful.”
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has broken the investigation into three phases and, over the weekend, crews began the third and final phase: to make their way toward the suspected source of the radiation leak.
It’s slow going for a number of reasons.
The distances underground are long and the investigation teams must travel on foot because vehicles could stir up contamination, Tammy Reynolds, deputy recovery manager, said at a recent town hall meeting. Additionally, crews are working to establish a clean base of operations as close as possible to the site of the contamination because the heavier protective gear they will wear as they approach the problem area will limit how long they can work.
“They need to be concerned about getting into a contaminated environment without being prepared for it and they need to be sure that, from a mine safety standpoint, they are not getting into a place that’s a problem,” Hancock said. “I applaud the fact they are going slow.”
WIPP is housed in a sprawling mine excavated from ancient salt beds some 2,150 feet below the surface. Below ground, the waste disposal area is divided into eight “panels” containing seven rooms each – each room the length of a football field – stacked to the ceiling with sealed containers of transuranic waste, the leftovers of the country’s nuclear defense program.
WIPP managers believe the Feb. 14 radiation leak may have stemmed from either panel 6, nearly filled with waste, or panel 7, which recently began receiving waste.
The crews are inching toward a lunchroom situated a few hundred feet from the entrance tunnel to panels 6 and 7. If the lunchroom is not contaminated with radiation, crews will set up a base camp there, Reynolds explained during the town hall. That’s where they would potentially change from lightweight protective clothing into the heftier “Level B” suits, made of impermeable gray plastic, including a built-in hood with a clear plastic visor. Workers are wearing respirators now and will continue to do so, WIPP has said.
Although the temperature underground is cool, the plastic suits let no air in or out, making it easy for the workers, who are unaccustomed to wearing such gear, to become overheated, while perspiration can fog up the visor. It’s enough of a problem that WIPP is now reconsidering whether to use “Level B” suits at all, said spokesman Ben Williams.
And that’s another reason the investigation has taken as long as it has: Plans keep changing.