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Boardman writes: "More than two months after Plutonium and Americium leaked from the supposedly leak-proof underground nuclear weapons waste storage facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) still does not know what caused the leak almost half a mile underground, but on April 17, an exploration crew found increasing radiation levels before retreating to safety."

More than two months after plutonium and americium leaked from the supposedly leak-proof underground nuclear weapons waste storage facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy still does not know what caused the leak. (photo: AP)
More than two months after plutonium and americium leaked from the supposedly leak-proof underground nuclear weapons waste storage facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy still does not know what caused the leak. (photo: AP)

Only US Nuclear Weapons Waste Storage Site Still Closed and Hot

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

22 April 14


Nobody’s ever tried to fix an underground radiation accident before

ore than two months after plutonium and americium leaked from the supposedly leak-proof underground nuclear weapons waste storage facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) still does not know what caused the leak almost half a mile underground, but on April 17, an exploration crew found increasing radiation levels before retreating to safety. The DOE plans to send more teams, or robots, into the storage area to find the source of the radioactive contamination.

The nuclear weapons waste facility, carved into an underground salt deposit, is known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP. It is the only repository for U.S. nuclear weapons waste and has been closed since undetermined amounts of plutonium and americium leaked into the atmosphere on February 14, 2014. This was the first known radioactive leak from WIPP, which its planners said would contain the nuclear weapons waste for 10,000 years without leaking.

As has been true at WIPP for months now, reliable, detailed information has been scarce. U.S. officials didn’t even inform the public that there had been a leak until four days after the event. Currently, the government is not saying what levels of radiation their teams have encountered during four trips into the storage area 2,130 feet underground. An Associated Press report carried this typically opaque bit of public information on April 17: “Tammy Reynolds, the U.S. Department of Energy’s deputy recovery manager, told a community meeting in Carlsbad that more trips need to be made into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to further investigate the accident, but officials hope to have more information next week.”

Underground storage area equals almost one square mile

According to the Department of Energy, there are seven sections or “panels” in the salt mine where the nuclear weapons waste is stored. Five of these sections have been sealed and are supposed to remain sealed for at least 10,000 years. Panel 6 is reportedly full, but not yet sealed, with no explanation for that delay. Panel 7 is an active storage area that has not been filled, and is the apparent location of radioactivity from whatever sort of accident has taken place.

“It doesn’t seem to us that the contamination came from Panel 6, that the source came from Panel 7,” Tammy Reynolds said. She also said: "The more they went into panel 7, the more it [radiation] started becoming more widespread…. They were picking up contamination more frequent."

Three weeks earlier, the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) reported the same information more precisely, on March 28: “Apparently, one or more of the 258 contact-handled (CH) waste containers underground in Room 7 and Panel 7 released radioactive and toxic chemicals.” This report calculates that the distance from the presumed point of release to the point of detection above ground is a mile and a half or more and that the radioactive release lasted more than 15 hours, based on DOE documents.

In his sixth open letter of reassurance to area residents, the Energy Department field manager offered no more specific information than any other public information officer. Jose Franco’s April 18 letter said of the investigation underground: “As workers traveled toward the waste disposal area, they did not detect airborne contamination. This confirms our ventilation system is working as designed. Once the location and cause of the event are identified, we can focus on any necessary cleanup activities in the area and work towards returning WIPP to full waste disposal operations.”

Government says irradiated workers are just fine

Officially, the radioactive release of February 14 contaminated 21 WIPP workers. These workers, who are employed by the government contractor that manages WIPP, ingested small amounts of plutonium or americium, either of which will remain a threat to the workers’ health for a long time (plutonium 239 has a half-life of 24,000 years; americium 242 has a half-life of 141 years).

Officially, the workers’ “exposure levels were extremely low, and the employees are unlikely to experience any health effects as a result.” Unlikely, perhaps, but with highly radioactive alpha radiation emitters lodged in their bodies, their chance of serious health issues has increased, and will not likely decrease. The workers were all working above ground when they were exposed. Reportedly there were no workers underground at the time of the accident.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant currently has more than 5,000 cubic feet of nuclear weapons waste in 41 packages that are not isolated. They are stored above ground in a parking area unit and a waste handling building. This waste arrived prior to the accidents at WIPP and the accidents prevented the waste from being moved underground.

Other waste shipments headed for WIPP have been diverted to a waste control facility in Andrews, Texas, where they are stored above ground. Under the current agreement with the Energy Department, that facility is allowed to store the waste for a year, with extensions for more years possible.

In its most recent “WIPP Radiation Release” update on April 10, the Southwest Research and Information Center provides a list of some of the things that remain unknown about radiation releases at WIPP since February 14:

  • What caused the release.

  • What was the nature of the release that allowed some contaminants to travel more than a mile and a half.

  • What contaminants were released into the environment before the HEPA filtration system was triggered.

  • What contaminants in what amounts have been captured by the HEPA filters.

  • Whether the amount of the release and the location of all of the containments can be determined.

  • When radiation levels in the WIPP underground air will return to pre-release levels.

  • The amounts of contamination in the WIPP underground.

  • What underground decontamination will be done.

  • What amount of exposure to radiation and toxic chemicals workers going underground will receive or have received.

  • What amount of exposure that workers on the surface have received or will receive.

  • What surface decontamination will be done.

  • What changes in the WIPP operation, monitoring, and safety culture will be implemented.

The government, on the other hand. continues to advise anyone who will listen that “print and electronic media and ‘watchdog groups’ have made this nuclear radiation molehill into a mountain. One millirem – mrem – is a radiation dose that is approximately equivalent to what one would receive from eating 100 bananas (not necessary to eat them all at once).”

In other words, even if you’re a heavy banana-eater: Don’t worry, be happy.

[NOTE: a detailed account of government response to the accidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project, titled “US Nuclear Waste Dirty-Bombs New Mexico With Plutonium,” is available here.]

William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


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+11 # intheEPZ 2014-04-22 22:47
So much for Carlsbad Caverns. I doubt that tourist site will have many visitors--if they are told what's cooking underground.
+13 # Barkingcarpet 2014-04-22 23:48
Happy Earth Day.....
+12 # Nigeldp 2014-04-23 00:16
Did someone Frack it up ?
+2 # Used Name 2014-04-23 16:08
Quoting Nigeldp:
Did someone Frack it up ?

I am ashamed that I didn't keep the article I saw that said they were fracking within a mile of the border of the grounds of the WIPP facility.

Anyone else see it?
+12 # m... 2014-04-23 02:38
I knew a Professor who was also one of the mathematical theorists on the New Mexico Project…
Like she said, when it comes to storing deadly radioactive stuff, some of which remains deadly for thousands of years, how does one even make a sign-- printed on what material and in what language -- that would warn others a millennium or two down the road:
…………….*Danger.. ! Do Not Dig Here..!*…………….

The 'Storage Science' of Nuclear Waste is still to this day, all theoretical. There is no such thing as a Permanent Nuclear Waste Storage Site anywhere on earth...
+10 # hwmcadoo 2014-04-23 04:20
And the Titantic was unsinkable too. Many warned about the danger of long term (10,000 years) of nuclear waste storage. They said it was safe and they were close, they made it to 30 years.

Never, never trust your American government; they lie for corporate interests.
+3 # JohnBoanerges 2014-04-23 11:27
"All Governments Lie"- Izzy Stone. They lie for as many reasons as there would be to tell the truth but they don't because the whole thing is constructed on lies and getting back to the truth (as DOES happen rarely) would be too difficult.
0 # WBoardman 2014-04-28 17:41
hwmcadoo –

if WIPP had remained safe for 30 years,
that would have been twice the reality. ;-)))
-15 # ericlipps 2014-04-23 04:46
What language? PICTURES.

Seriously, we have no choice but to solve this problem. However, I fear the antinuclear movement doesn't really want it solved, because that would take away a big talking point against nuclear power.
+9 # tedrey 2014-04-23 06:00
But also the nuclear industry doesn't want to admit there's even a problem to be solved, because that's a big talking point against nuclear power.
+3 # JohnBoanerges 2014-04-23 11:30
The partial solution is to use this 'waste' material in Thorium reactors. The amount, though, oh, the amount!
0 # WBoardman 2014-04-28 17:44
ericlipps –

The first sane thing to do is
at least as long as it takes to solve
the problem.

Got any ideas? No? You're not alone.
+4 # Citizen Mike 2014-04-23 06:14
Plutonium does not exist in nature,it is a Frankenstein element we created. Perhaps creating new elements like that is something we should have scrupulously avoided as tampering too deeply with nature. It is both thermally and radiaoactively hot and very toxic. Now we are living in a bad 1950s SF movie, only a matter of time before we see giant ants or Godzilla!
+10 # tedrey 2014-04-23 06:18
You know that it's a cover-up whenever the banana argument is raised, without going on to point out that the potassium in a banana is out of the body in a few hours while the "radioactive alpha radiation emitters lodged in their bodies" will remain there radiating for a period depending on the half-life of the element; perhaps a month for potassium, but 141 years for Americium 242, and 24,000 years for Plutonium 239. (Well, it's true the body won't last that long.)

It's an old nuclear power evasion, also known as a lie.
+10 # Citizen Mike 2014-04-23 06:34
There is NO method of safe storage for nuclear waste. A weakness the nuclear power industry has taken pains to conceal. I once worked at a public relations company that created a disinformation campaign for that industry, so I know for sure this is true.
-3 # eac 2014-04-23 07:37
Here are the choices. Accommodate the massive rise in power consuming populations (at least eight-fold increase just with China and India) by reducing our own power consumption by 85% or more.

Take our chances on climate change by putting more carbon into the atmosphere than the earth has seen in millions of years.

Try to develop containment solutions on nuclear and continue innovating cleaner versions of this technology that exist currently.

That's it. There are no other options. Intermittent renewables like wind and solar are not viable replacements for base load power so they can only address about 15-20% of the power now created with fossil fuels.

I think the first scenario is unreasonable and the second is scarier than the third. But make no mistake, there is risk and pain in all of these options. Yet we cannot avoid it since there are no others.
+4 # tedrey 2014-04-23 09:11
I agree, except for the "either/or" tendency of your options.

Even if alternate methods were to provide only "15 to 20%" that's far from nothing.

Also the fact that we may not reduce our consumption by 85% doesn't mean that we shouldn't at least stop its increase, and even reduce it to some extent.

And here, and in China and in India, which also want to survive, we must make nuclear and other forms of power generation transparent and accountable, removing them completely from the grip of the "profit motive". Survival of our civilizations, our species, and our profit should provide all the "incentive" that is required.
0 # moonrigger 2015-01-02 17:13
eac speaks the truth. We so want solar and wind to be a panacea, but too many are confusing the source of solar and wind with the actual risks of using these seemingly benign power sources (I used to sing along with Carly Simon). We don't realize what's in solar panels these days, especially the ones from China flooding the market, BTW, trying to unfairly put the US mfrs. out of biz. Cadmium and selenium aren't benign. Then there's the risks when installing, wiring, and maintaining them usually on rooftops. A typical home installation for a family of 4 is about $30K, maybe less for some folks, depending on the quality of the panels, etc. Cost of inverter is high. Cost of battery storage is also high, if you need it--and you do in partly sunny areas, where you may capture less than 80% of actual insolation. Battery disposal is a hazmat issue. Wind is really dangerous, and associated injuries/deaths is climbing rapidly. The industry is hiding a lot about this as it booms, but then we all know T. Boone Pickens et al are pretty good at media manipulation. But the honest facts are, wind power has killed and maimed a lot of folks here and abroad. Anyone up for hanging on a cable in front of a giant blender blade??
+3 # Kootenay Coyote 2014-04-23 08:17
& then there's Hanford, Wash., which is not bed of roses either.
+3 # JohnBoanerges 2014-04-23 11:31
Hanford which, unfortunately, is orders of magnitude greater.
0 # moonrigger 2015-01-02 17:22
Remember, this was a DOE project! Yes, we need to get after the government to make them comply with the same safety regulations as commercial plants. Worlds and worlds of difference...Ha nford is a relic of WWII. Hideous that they've mismanaged it, but there was no incentive to protect the public, just sweep everything under the rug.
+5 # mrbadexample 2014-04-23 13:13
The whole idea of there being a 'safe' place to sequester nuclear waste until its half-life runs out is invalid at this point. We understand now (as we didn't when we began this science) that there's no such thing as a 'safe' place on earth--every square inch of the planet is subject to plate tectonics, and there can be no guarantees. And this is assuming humans can't weaponize such waste and use it in evil ways.
Nuclear is over. Even if we could figure out the waste, there isn't sufficient U235 to fuel all of the plants over the next decade. Nobody developed breeder reactors because of the deadly plutonium they'd produce. Instead of planning new plants, we should be figuring out what to do with all this fuel--especiall y the stuff in the containment tanks at Fukushima.
0 # WBoardman 2014-04-28 17:54
mrbadexample –

anyone who wanted to know the unlimited
danger in nuclear technology could have
figured it out pretty much any time since 1945.

The failure to go with science and caution seems
to be rooted in denial, irrational optimism,
war guilt, and significant private profits
(with government assuming almost all the risk).

All these helped justify more and more and more
nuclear weapons.
0 # moonrigger 2015-01-02 17:19
The thing is, if a disaster hit of such a magnitude that it would crack or shift disposal units of super thick steel, buried in massive salt blocks or concrete, civilization as we know it would likely be going up in smoke. The engineers who've designed these things have families, just like you and I, and don't want anything to happen to them, ya know. Just saying. It's all too easy to imagine some evil emperor and his lackeys deliberately want to ruin the planet.
+2 # Liebermania 2014-04-27 09:48
Does anyone remember an old (1954) movie called THEM?
0 # WBoardman 2014-04-28 17:56
And then there was:

0 # moonrigger 2015-01-02 17:28
There comes a point when we have to do the risk:benefit analysis, and decide from the facts what to do. Fire is a great example. It's way more dangerous than nuclear. Most people have experiences a fire in their home or garage or kitchen. Maybe in their backyard when leaf burning got out of control. Should we ban fire? Or just learn how to handle it safely, hoping that another force won't unleash it upon us, like Mrs. O'Leary's cow. We keep analyzing the facts, and do our best with the knowledge at hand, not stick our heads in the sand because we heard about someone getting burned or killed. We manage the risks, just like with driving. Yegads, maybe the guys in the Plato's cave should have stayed put. But then, there was that risk of cave-ins!

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