Sunday, March 16, 2014

NM Nuclear Underground Waste Repository Radiation Leak That Contaminated 17 Surface Workers Remains A Mystery

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad remains closed and U.S. Department of Energy federal investigators are trying to determine how a radiation leak on February 14 reached the surface and contaminated workers at the site.

By H. Nelson Goodson
March 16,  2014

Carlsbad, New Mexico - The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad remains closed and U.S. Department of Energy federal investigators haven't determined how a concentration of unsafe radiation leak had reached the surface from an underground depository storage facility. At least 17 WIPP workers tested positive from their fecal matter for americium-241 and plutonium-239+240 in a preliminary test and 13 tested positive for radioactive isotopes from urine samples, a February 26 test result report indicated. Another 139 workers have been tested as well and their results are due by March 19.
The WIPP facility stores low-levels of radioactive contaminated clothing, tools, packaging and other items, which been exposed to radiation at government defence labs. 
The radiation leak was plugged, but the future of the repository facility is still being debated by federal and local governments. The feds want to reopen the repository after they can determine the cause of the leak and the radiation levels go back to normal.
The WIPP repository was opened in 1997 and is operated by thr URS Corporation that runs it for the U.S. Department of Energy. Thousands of barrels of radioactive material composed of recycled used nuclear fuel or waste from using plutonium to fabricate nuclear weapons from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) has been stored at the WIPP.
Since the repository has been shot down due to a radioactive leak, the LANL can't transfer at least 1,000 barrels of radioactive material that is being temporarily stored at the facility to the repository and has a deadline to get rid of the waste permanently by June 30, according to the New Mexico Environmental Department, Reuters reported. Also facing similar disposal deadlines are Illinois, Idaho and South Carolina who can't transferred their contaminated waste (low-level contaminated items) to the WIPP facility. 
The facility has been an economic boost for the Carlsbad area, since it opened, employing more then 850 workers, who have benefit from the facility. But within a mile of the facility, they're more than 100 oil and gas wells operating, which worries many local residents, according to officials. The latest surface radiation leak in the facility hasn't been evaluated to determine,  if any future effects it will have in the next decade. Federal officials indicate, that the radiation levels are to low and too early to determine any effect to area residents and the environment. 
There is a current effort to expand the repository mission to include high-level storage of radioactive waste material at WIPP, but an act of Congress would have to approve the change.
The URS Corporation that runs the WIPP for the U.S. Department of Energy announced on Thursday that it had replaced Farok Sharif as head of the Nuclear Waste Partnership in wake of February's fire incident blamed on poor maintenance and outdated equipment and radiation leak ten days later. Mike McQuinn will replace Sharif and will become president and project manager at WIPP. Sharif will now oversee the transport of radiation waste to other facilities, as WIPP is temporarily closed, according to URS, KOAT7 ABC reported.
The WIPP operates with a budget of $160 million and has 300 employees and received 20 shipments of radiation waste a week before it closed.

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