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WIPP leaks ‘should never occur’

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

“One event is far too many.”

That’s how New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn characterized last week’s radiation leak from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. Although deemed not harmful to human health, the elevated levels of plutonium and americium detected outside the nuclear waste depository has prompted an investigation.

“Events like this simply should never occur,” Flynn said during a news conference on Thursday. “From the state’s perspective, one event is far too many.”

U.S. Department of Energy Carlsbad Field Office Manager Joe Franco said it could take three weeks to get investigators underground to uncover the source of the Feb. 14 leak – the first time radiation has escaped the facility in its 15 years of operation, he said.

Franco said WIPP is working on a “comprehensive plan to re-enter the underground.” An Accident Investigation Board is handling the inquiry, according to a WIPP spokeswoman.

Flynn said the state Environment Department’s primary concern is to “assure there are absolutely no threats to public health.”

It’s the second safety breach at WIPP in less than a month, after a truck used for hauling salt from mines caught fire underground and prompted an emergency response in early February. No one was hurt.

The issues have thrown into question proposals to expand WIPP’s available underground storage space as well as the type of nuclear waste it handles.

WIPP’s underground chambers currently house some 3.2 million cubic feet of what’s known as “transuranic waste,” contaminated leftovers from the country’s nuclear defense activities. The waste, stored in sealed containers, is stacked in underground rooms the size of football fields that have been hollowed out of salt beds about half a mile beneath the surface.

Commercial waste from nuclear power plants and high-level waste such as spent fuel is not permitted, but there have been efforts in recent years to expand WIPP’s scope.

“WIPP is 16 square miles,” said John Heaton, chairman of Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway’s Nuclear Task Force. “We’re only using about two-thirds of the square mile floor as it presently exists. There is a large potential area for expansion if that is what the politicians choose to do. If the science demonstrates that we can expand into other arenas, then we would favor that.”

Flynn said the Environment Department will take the recent incidents into account as it evaluates future permits for expansion or additional streams of waste.

Last week, the department called for 60 days of public comment on plans to build new underground storage rooms, which would not increase the storage volume limit of 6.2 million cubic feet of waste.

“They’ve wanted to bring different types of waste and expand WIPP’s mission and the size of WIPP,” said Scott Kovac, operations and research director with Nuclear Watch New Mexico. “It’s not the place. The problem is that WIPP is the only functioning geological repository in the country. What’s lacking in the discussion is, what replaces WIPP?”

An independent analysis detected elevated levels of the radioactive elements plutonium and americium at an air monitoring station about a half mile from the WIPP facility after the underground radiation alert. The levels did not breach those deemed unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Russell Hardy, director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, on Wednesday said readings from the air sensor were the highest recorded since WIPP began operating in 1999 and the first believed to have stemmed from a leak.

Radiation levels underground have waned, Franco said, suggesting that the leak was “a one-time event and is not still continuing.”

“Until we get down there, we definitely don’t know what it could be,” he said.

WIPP halted shipments from labs and test sites around the country in the wake of the fire. Franco said shipments will likely remain stalled beyond March 10, the end of a pre-scheduled annual maintenance outage, while an investigation is ongoing.

Non-essential personnel are working at alternate locations, he said.