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60% of underground WIPP open

SANTA FE, N.M. — More than 60 percent of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s underground is now accessible, nine months after February’s incident, officials said.

The overall progress at WIPP was updated during a public meeting late last week that included Nuclear Waste Partnership officials and representatives from the New Mexico Environment Department.

Nuclear Waste Partnership Deputy Recovery Manager Tammy Reynolds said more than 60 percent of the underground has now been rolled back in areas, giving the workers safe access. One of the key focuses now is the cleaning of the electrical components in these areas.

Reynolds also said that there are now personnel going into the underground, but that number is limited to 24 people due to the condition of the waste hoist.

Despite the waste hoist being repaired, it is only used for equipment at this moment, Reynolds said.

Tim Runyon, of the WIPP Recovery Communications, said there are additional inspections required on the steel cables in order for people to began using the waste hoist.

Reynolds said that a new small, but measurable amount of radiation was detected, due to some work on the underground fan.

However, sample locations showed that the range of the detection was low and would have no harm on the environment or anyone.

Runyon said WIPP officials were expecting a small radiation leak to happen just by simply starting the fan back up.

“The amount that was detected was actually a lot less then what we expected,” Runyon said.

Also, areas of the underground has been categorized allowing workers to know if they have to wear radiological protective clothes and equipment in particular areas, Reynolds said.

New Mexico Environment Department environmental scientist Martin Simon explained how they were monitoring the air at the site and in areas outside of the site.

The department is using electric ion chambers, which detect gamma rays in the air. There are currently 20 chambers in use, 14 of them are located at WIPP, six of which have been placed in outlying areas.

Simon also explained in the meeting how there is already natural radiation all around us, and therefore any small detections they have found are not considered harmful to the environment.

One town hall attendee, however, requested that WIPP and the DOE tell the public the what is considered harmful radiation in relation to naturally occurring radiation, so that the public can better understand what is considered a threatening leak.

Also, officials said they recently made the 100th entry into the underground areas as well as testing with the equipment in the underground. WIPP has also increased the staff to approximately 77 workers.

“Spirits were really high seeing how much activity has been done in the underground,” said Joe Franco, manager of the Department of Energy, Carlsbad Field Office.

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