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Probe of WIPP leak may begin today

CARLSBAD – An investigation into the cause of a radiation leak at a nuclear waste repository could begin as soon as today, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Carlsbad Field Office Manager Joe Franco said that, weather permitting, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant may send probes underground to assess conditions for re-entry either today or over the weekend.

Workers have not gone underground since a Feb. 14 radiation leak at the site. WIPP houses low-level radioactive waste from the country’s nuclear weapons program in large, underground rooms excavated from salt mines.

“Until we get down there, it is just going to be hearsay,” Franco said.

At a Thursday evening public meeting held before a news conference, DOE and WIPP officials emphasized that test results show the amount of radiation that escaped into the air was minimal and well below levels considered actionable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Several dozen community members and state and federal officials attended the town hall meeting. While many expressed support for a facility that is considered a major economic driver in the region, some said they were frustrated with the pace of the investigation and concerned with contingency plans for future events.

“There is always the potential for future events to happen,” Karen Armendariz told the DOE officials and WIPP managers on the panel. “What about evacuation information should something occur again in the future? Should the town have any protection should something go terribly wrong?”

Franco told Armendariz and others in the audience: “We have an emergency planning program. With the worst-case scenario, it’s mostly contained.”

Others who attended the meeting said they were there to hear the latest on the investigation. Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership, which operates the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, offered an outline.

Once the probes determine the conditions underground, personnel wearing protective gear will re-enter 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.

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 radiation leak.

Earlier on Thursday, Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Republican Rep. Steve Pearce met with U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in Washington to discuss the federal response to the WIPP leak.

In a conference call with reporters, Heinrich and Udall said they stressed to Moniz the need for the federal government to be honest and open with the public about the leak. They also said Moniz assured them federal officials would be doing underground testing soon to determine the extent of the leak and its ramifications.

“You need to get the instrumentation underground to understand what may have caused the leak, what the appropriate remediation is and then how to accomplish that remediation, and then get back to a normal work schedule ensuring that it doesn’t ever happen again,” Heinrich said.

“They’re working as quickly as possible,” he added.

Udall said the Environmental Protection Agency’s testing of the radiation levels “show levels well below anything that could cause public health concern.”

“The independent monitoring by the EPA I think has given a comfort level to the community that there is some independence going on,” he said.

“I think they are taking this very, very seriously,” Heinrich said.

Journal Washington Bureau reporter Michael Coleman contributed to this report.

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