A team wearing protective gear discovered radioactive contamination in the storage unit known as panel seven, one of eight sprawling panels built into an excavated salt mine designed to house waste from the country’s nuclear defense program.
The team made its discovery on Wednesday.
“The more they went into panel seven, the more (the contamination) became more widespread,” said Tammy Reynolds, deputy recovery manager, at a Thursday town hall meeting in Carlsbad.
Reynolds said surveys in panel seven showed “peaks of americium.” The crew did not investigate the exact source of the contamination because their respiratory equipment was running low on power.
“They made the correct decision to turn back,” Reynolds said. “Everyone was safely returned to the surface.”
Reynolds said WIPP is now evaluating how to proceed deeper into the contaminated area to investigate the source of a Feb. 14 radiation leak that contaminated 21 workers with low levels of radiation.
Based on the data collected during Wednesday’s entry, WIPP will determine what kind of protective gear workers should wear. She said “it’s more than likely” investigators will don impermeable gray plastic jumpers known as “Level B” suits for added protection against radioactive elements.
Panel seven is the panel that was being actively filled with containers of waste before an unrelated underground fire Feb. 5 initially shut down operations. WIPP has remained closed to shipments since then.
It’s not clear whether crews will re-enter today.