New Mexico, Same Old Story: Radiation Leaks and a 'Manhattan' Project
On February 14, New Mexico got a Valentines’ Day present, and we are still dealing with the fallout (pun unavoidable) from that event. The WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) facility in Carlsbad, NM finally acknowledged that their first radiation leak in 15 years was larger than first reported. Also a month earlier a truck moving salt caught on fire due to negligence. This is all a half mile "down there" in ancient salt beds. One report said a ceiling panel collapsed at some point and that may have led to an accident, possibly a breached container. Experts said fires or radiation leaks "are not supposed to happen" -- "down there". The mayor of Carlsbad says there’s more room "down there," so it’s OK to send more transuranic waste from all over the country. WIPP says the amount of radiation would equal a visit to the dentist or travelling on an airplane. The waste is contaminated materials and not spent fuel rods. There is no facility that stores or disposes of spent nuclear fuel rods at this time since Yucca Mountain, Nevada, has issues and conflicts.
Now that the silence has been lifted, there are more press conferences and community meetings every Thursday. Thirteen workers who were tested because of possible plutonium and americium inhalation received negative results, but 3 more of the other 140 workers are now being tested. The testing is for urine and feces analysis and they can be given chemicals that bind with any radiated materials to speed excretion. Whole body counter scans are also being given to people who may have been exposed, workers, visitors and press, but they don’t detect the small quantities that urine/feces tests can.
The underground storage facility is closed until all testing is complete and they find out where the radiation "leaked" from. Initial reports said a recent truck shipment was the cause, but did not specify whether the container was leaking, or the outside of the container was contaminated. Another report said workers can’t even go "down there" to do more tests until air samples say that radiation levels are deemed safe. That leaves New Mexico and Federal officials at odds: Who is in charge of the timeline, as the truck shipments continue to pile up the "transuranic waste" containers outside in holding areas? The normal "legal" wait for these containers is one month, now they are expected to be stored outside for up to 3 ½ months. This is the only facility in the country accepting such shipments. Now transuranic waste may be piling up in your area at a local nuclear facility.
Now we are reminded that this was not first radiation leak, accident or spill. New Mexico experienced a high level spill caused by the United Nuclear Corporation when waste was accidently dumped at the milling operation and eventually into the Rio Puerco in 1979. It was called the Church Rock Spill, it happened near and on the Navajo Nation and remains one of the biggest radiation contamination in history after the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents. Church Rock was comparable to Three Mile Island, and another radiation release that occurred at the Kerr-McGee Sequoyah Corporation in Oklahoma in 1986.
In the Church Rock spill, which happened only four months after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, a spill from a breached dam at a uranium mill dumped 94 million gallons of effluent and 1000 tons of acidic radioactive sludge into the Rio Puerco. The spill was finally declared an EPA Superfund site in 1983 after the New Mexico Governor at the time objected to the Navajo Nation’s request that it be named a federal disaster.
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