WIPP radiation leak still a mystery

CARLSBAD, N.M. (KRQE) – The coast appears clear for a team to reenter a small underground portion of New Mexico’s crippled WIPP site.

The radiation leak contaminated much of the nuclear waste mine. However, sensors lowered Friday show no detectable radiation at the bottom of two shafts isolated from the leak site.

Plans are underway for a human team to go down and find out what caused the leak.

On February 14, radioactive contamination from the tunnels below escaped into the open air. No one was underground, but at least 17 workers on the surface ingested some of the radioactive particles.

WIPP experts say the levels were so low, lower than background radiation, and far below EPA limits. They say the employees have no health risk.

The contamination drifted across the countryside and 26 miles west, all the way to the city of Carlsbad itself.

Nuclear experts told residents, worried about children, the WIPP contamination now confirmed to have reached town is not dangerous.

”Below any limit, just above background, and would result in no health potential to a child, or a fetus,” Fran Williams, URS technical advisor said.

It all began 2,000 feet down in a bed of salt. There are dozens of rooms, each the length of a football field.

Crews stack waste containers there from defense plants all over America. Once full rooms are sealed, fresh air flows down through this shaft, passes throughout the tunnels and ‘open’ waste storage rooms and then goes back to the surface in another shaft.

Panel 7 is where workers most recently put waste. The radiation leak is believed to be there.

Sensors lowered last week probed the area far upwind of the leak and detected no radiation. Now a human team will first be sent to this safe area.

Coincidentally a half a mile away from Panel 7, nine days before the leak, WIPP had a salt truck burned. Because of that, no workers were in the mine on the day of the leak.

That’ night the leak was first detected by an air monitor sitting here. Because the air was flowing over the waste and then past the monitor, it’s thought most likely part of the roof of the mine here collapsed on and ruptured containers.

Another possibility is that a container blew up.

When the first radiation was detected below, air filters here were automatically engaged where mine air returns to the surface. Most of the contamination was captured, but a small fraction escaped into the air.

No one will know for sure what happened until man or robot physically gets to Panel 7.

WIPP tunnels are designed to eventually collapse on the waste, years later, not while workers are there.

Roof sections here have collapsed before, two decades ago during stress tests. Hundreds of tons of salt crashed down.

To prevent that, long roof bolts are drilled deep into the ceilings of tunnels.

Salt is elastic, so from the moment tunnels are dug they start to close back in. Roof bolts slow down, but do not stop that.

Since WIPP’s birth, miners have patrolled the underground with big poles, knocking off flakes that have begun to crack loose so they don’t hurt someone.

Regardless of what WIPP determines actually caused the accident, the Department of Energy says there is no basis to some of the rumors floating around the area here that WIPP might get shut down.

”that question has not come up a single time. The question has not been ‘if’ we’re going to open WIPP, it’s been how can we get it reopened,” David Klaus, DOE deputy undersecretary said.

WIPP experts say a safe fix for whatever went wrong will have to be devised and the sprawling tunnels will have to be decontaminated before any disposal resumes.

”We will not jeopardize the safety of our workers, and the public and their environment. I’m a home-grown Carlsbad and I have family here also and if I didn’t feel that we were doing things safe, I would stop,” Joe Franco, DOE Carlsbad field office manager said.

WIPP officials are promising more town hall meetings to update the public.

Managers also say they will issue a lot of letters to people in the Carlsbad area to keep them informed as new data comes in.

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