Officials upset over airborne radiation

CARLSBAD, N.M. (KQRE) – Part of the WIPP site in Carlsbad remained evacuated Thursday.

Federal and state agencies are scrambling to deal with the discovery of airborne radiation inside the waste storage tunnels five days ago.

While the tunnels are underground, the radiation has been detected above ground, too.

Both the New Mexico Environment Department and the U.S. Department of Energy agree and say the release of radiation from the WIPP site to the open air above last week is not a health hazard.

But state leaders are not happy that it took several days for the DOE to share news of the contamination that escaped to the outside air.

“I expect that information will be shared with the state in real time. And I will demand that the federal officials share information with the public in real time,” said Ryan Flynn, secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department.

A radiation leak inside the underground mine itself was detected by sensors late last Friday. No workers were in the mine and no contamination was immediately detected outside the mine in the air. Special filters trap contaminants.

But the next morning, a tiny trace of contamination was detected in the air outside the mine. It took several days for the news to reach state officials.

“That should have never happened. They should have been notified immediately and DOE, the Carlsbad office manager, has that responsibility and we’ll make sure that does not happen again,” said Joe Franco, manager of the DOE Carlsbad office.

DOE scientists say the delay in notification was caused by tests that had to be done to the samples to confirm that they were from the WIPP leak, and not naturally occurring radiation.

No one has gone below the surface since the event, so officials can only hypothesize about what happened.

Drums of low level waste are piled up in stacks underground and one of the working theories right now is that a big slab of the roof broke free, hit the stack, knocked some drums off and smashed and opened one or more of them.

While that is what happens after storage shafts are permanently sealed, that is not supposed to happen in areas being actively worked by crews. It appears the leak occurred in an active work area while no one was in the underground.

The DOE says it will be at least two or three weeks before crews try to re-enter WIPP and that will only be when they can do so safely.

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