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Boardman writes: "Environmental radiation releases spiked again in mid-June around the surface site of the only underground storage facility for nuclear weapons waste in the U.S., near Carlsbad, New Mexico."

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)

Nuclear Radiation Releases Continue in New Mexico

By William Boardman, Reader Supported News

02 June 14


Something happened in February, something is STILL going on

nvironmental radiation releases spiked again in mid-June around the surface site of the only underground storage facility for nuclear weapons waste in the U.S., near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), has been shut down since February 14, when its isolation technology failed, releasing unsafe levels of plutonium, americium, and other radio-nuclides into the environment around the site.

Radiation levels in the underground storage area, 2,150 feet below the surface, vary from near-normal to potentially lethal. At the time of the February accident, more than 20 WIPP workers suffered low level radioactive contamination, even though none of them were underground. WIPP assumes, but cannot confirm, that underground conditions have not changed since May 31, when the last entry team went into the mine, as reported by WIPP field manager Jose Franco on June 5:

As I noted in my previous letter, we have identified the damaged drum believed to be a contributing source of the radiological release. On May 31, an entry team was able to safely and successfully collect six samples from a variety of locations in Panel 7 of Room 7, including from the breached drum and a nearby standard waste box. These sample results are consistent with the contamination previously identified.

In mid-March, WIPP suffered a surface radiation release almost twice the levels released in February. WIPP was designed to isolate highly radioactive nuclear weapons waste from the environment for 10,000 years. It went 15 years before its first leak of radioactivity into the above-ground environment.

The latest elevated radiation levels were detected by monitors placed by the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED). The monitors measure radiation only after it has passed through the WIPP filtration system, which is designed to minimize radiation that escapes from the storage area half a mile underground. Radiation levels in the storage area where the original leak occurred are possibly as lethal as Fukushima, hampering efforts to determine the source, cause, and scale of the February leak.

What happened underground remains a mystery and a danger

More than five months after the February accident, officials still have no certain understanding of what went wrong. It is generally thought that one 55-gallon drum of waste (perhaps more than one) overheated and burst, spilling radioactive waste in a part of the storage area known as Panel 7, Room 7. This room, designated a “High Contamination Area,” measures 33 by 80 feet and presently has 24 rows of waste containers. The room holds 258 containers, tightly stacked and packed wall-to-wall, with no aisles to allow easy access. There is some clearance between the top of the stacks and the room’s ceiling.

The high contamination in Room 7 is a threat to human inspectors, limiting inspection of the room to date to mechanical means, primarily cameras on extension arms. As a result of these limitations, WIPP teams have inspected only ten of the 24 rows of waste containers in Room 7. Rows #1-14 have been out of reach of the available equipment.

WIPP has begun building a full scale replica of Room 7 above ground, to provide a realistic staging area in which to test methods of remote observation that might reach the 14 uninspected rows. According to WIPP:

Options include a device that uses carbon fiber rods to extend the camera, a gantry camera suspended on wires, or a boom system mounted on a trolley that would move across the waste face from wall to wall and out 90 feet to view all rows of waste.

WIPP has spent much of June improving the air filtration system to the mine, adding filters that reduce escaping radiation and improving underground air flow for the sake of entry teams. WIPP suspended underground entries on May 31, apparently to improve safety conditions. Reporting on June 18, field manager Jose Franco wrote:

Since the radiological event, we have safely entered the underground facility nearly a dozen times. Each time, we learn more and we use those discoveries to refine our tasks moving forward. Our entry teams have identified a breached container and we are using all of the resources at our disposal to find the cause.

No one is more eager than we are to determine what happened and return to normal operations.

Nuclear waste in Los Alamos puts National Lab at risk

“Normal operations” in the past included accepting thousands of waste-filled containers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), which is under a June 30 legal deadline to clean up its above-ground and shallow underground waste that has accumulated since the 1940s, when Los Alamos scientists were building the first atomic bombs.

The contractor packaging LANL waste into containers made a change a while back, substituting organic kitty litter for the standard inorganic product. More than 500 containers with organic kitty litter have been prepared, 368 of them already stored underground at WIPP. One frequently cited theory (promoted by a WIPP booster) is that one or more of these containers underwent a chemical, heat-generating process because of the organic kitty litter and that reaction caused the container to burst.

The rest of these containers with organic matter are temporarily buried at a West Texas site or remain on the LANL property. They are under constant watch and reportedly none have failed to date.

Los Alamos has been under pressure to clean up its radioactive waste for years, if not decades. But it took the approach of wildfires to the LANL waste site for the laboratory to enter into a binding agreement with the New Mexico Environment Department to remove all the waste it has accumulated. As the June 30 deadline approached, LANL again asked the state for an extension of the deadline, saying there wasn’t enough money in its federal budget to comply with the court order.

In the past, the state had granted an extension more than 100 times. This time New Mexico said no. That will subject LANL to further sanctions, including fines.

Lawsuit over state-approved high-level waste containers

Almost two years ago, after New Mexico approved new containers for use at WIPP without holding a public hearing on the application, the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) sued to block the containers from coming into use. In the center’s view, these new, shielded containers were less robust than containers already in use for highly radioactive waste. That issue should have been considered at a public hearing, SRIC argued at the time:

The Appellants and approximately 200 individuals requested that the request to modify the state’s WIPP permit be subject to a public hearing because of the dangers posed by RH [Remote Handled] waste, the technical complexity of handling RH waste at WIPP, and the substantial public interest in the request. NMED ignored those comments and approved the Department of Energy (DOE) request despite the fact that the state agency had in December 2011 and January 2012 rejected virtually the same request.

Remote Handled (RH) waste is so designated because radiation levels are too high to allow close personal contact, so the waste must be handled by remote-controlled machinery. About 10 per cent of WIPP waste is Remote Handled.

In December 2012, NMED had publicly announced a public hearing on the new container issue. The department rescinded the hearing notice four days later, without explaining the change.

The New Mexico Appeals Court heard closing arguments in the case in July 2013, but had not rendered a decision at the time of the February 2014 accident at WIPP. On June 26, the court held a further hearing to consider whether the radiation release at WIPP was relevant to the use of the new, high-level waste containers. As reported by the New Mexican, this case has a number of anomalies:

The Environment Department said in an email that the shielded containers can be transported in fewer shipments, and the process is quicker and significantly reduces the dosage rates of radiation from the drums.

Moreover, although the department doesn’t know who manufactures the shielded containers, their safety has been vetted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency….

Regulators and the nuclear watchdog group hope the judges will make a decision sooner rather than later. Even though WIPP is closed for now, a whole lot of highly radioactive waste has to be packaged into containers for temporary storage until shipments resume.

Investigations rampant, answers scarce

On June 16, four months after the radiation release from WIPP, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced its “decision to conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances associated with potential programmatic deficiencies in the nuclear safety, radiation protection, emergency management, quality assurance, and worker safety and health programs revealed by the February 2014 fire and radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project.”

Currently there are at least nine investigations into WIPP’s failure, including DOE, which operates the facility largely through private contractors. A few days later, a DOE attorney told the New Mexico Court of Appeals that “Nobody is contemplating a closure of WIPP,” but that WIPP is unlikely to reopen until 2016 at the earliest.

In March, Don Hancok of SRIC published a piece listing questions that were then unanswered:

  • What caused the leak?
  • How much leaked into the underground salt mine?
  • How much leaked into the environment?
  • Where are those radioactive and toxic wastes now?
  • To what amount of radiation were the workers exposed?
  • What are the health effects for those workers?
  • What decontamination is necessary in the underground mine?
  • What decontamination is necessary on the WIPP site and surrounding area?
  • If WIPP reopens, what changes in the operation, monitoring, and safety culture will be implemented?

On June 25, Hancock published another piece in the same online magazine, La Jicarita, pointing out that the questions of March all remained unanswered in June. The piece carried this headline:

Why do we still not know what’s wrong with WIPP?

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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+19 # curmudgeon 2014-07-02 09:51
The Nuclear industry will NEVER let us know.
+20 # Jackiet 2014-07-02 09:58
By all means let's build more nuclear plants when we still do not know how to dispose of the waste!!!
+11 # cherylpetro 2014-07-02 14:06
It is absurd to make something without considering all the factors, and potential dangers that are involved, and how to remedy them without doing harm! It is like making a car without breaks! It runs very well, but it is just that "coming to a stop" part, that is tricky!
0 # madams12 2014-07-07 10:47
That's why the risk analysis/Insura nce is put on the shoulders of the Tax paying public....we carry the burden...not the govt.
+19 # Vardoz 2014-07-02 11:49
We just cant poison ourselves enough. Radiation kills people for generations.
+11 # cherylpetro 2014-07-02 14:00
Just ask Iraq! They were "shocked and awed" into cancers and birth defects that would curl the hair of even the most experienced doctor!
+12 # WBoardman 2014-07-02 18:52
America used depleted uranium weapons
all over Iraq
and has made no effort to clean any of it up.

By any reckoning, isn't that a war crime?
+3 # Anarchist 23 2014-07-03 11:15
Well..we were the first nation to use atomic weapons in warfare..we somehow missed that that was a war crime!
+14 # Annietime13 2014-07-02 12:11

+6 # cherylpetro 2014-07-02 13:58
Very clever! Maybe a bit of karma thrown in too, for good measure...
+20 # wantrealdemocracy 2014-07-02 12:28
Germany has shut down all their nuclear power plants and replaced them with solar panels. They passed a law to require two way meters on homes. In this way any excess power they put into the grid must be paid for at over the rate the utility is charging. They have government loans to people to buy the solar panels. Each month they get a check from the utility company which can be used to pay back the loan and to go shopping.

We must have a international law against the production and maintainence of all nuclear weapons. All must be dismantled --not just the super bombs but all those that we have been using in Iraq.
+7 # cherylpetro 2014-07-02 13:52
If science cannot guarantee the safety of their inventions, and discoveries, and how to fend off any possible disaster caused by those inventions and discoveries; then they should not be implemented! Who unleashes a potentially lethal technology without knowing exactly how to circumvent a deadly situation? It isn't like they are coming up with a new recipe for zucchini bread that stays moist and yummy, but if it fails to meet that criteria, can be discarded safely! Zucchini bread can be composted to nourish the soil; radiation from nuclear waste can be sucked in by our thyroids and kill us with the resulting cancer! It is unconscionable to foist off on society a harmful threat just waiting to happen, (I would say, "a time bomb waiting to go off", but I think that would be a bit too, "on the nose!") We go bombing the bejesus out of other countries, thinking we are so big and powerful and self-righteous; then we allow the radiation from that stored bomb material waste to slowly do the same to ourselves back home! If it weren't such a tragic situation; I'd call it ironic! We exploit the Earth to grab its treasures for our purposes of destruction, and greed; and the Earth responds with a big, "up yours!" And we deserve it!
+13 # cherylpetro 2014-07-02 13:56
We also must have a global effort to stop the radiation leak from Fukishima! It seems like we are hell bent on self-destructio n; and we just may achieve that goal!
+7 # cherylpetro 2014-07-02 14:48
Science is a double edged sword, it helps us, but it also fu*ks us over pretty damn good too! We need people with foresight in charge! Not everything science produces is worth using! If it can kill us, we need a say so in the matter!
+4 # cherylpetro 2014-07-02 14:54
I applaud this discussion! Guess it is too much for the trolls to handle! It feels good not to have moronic comments dragging things down.
Let's keep supporting RSN. I hate to see the desperate pleas go unanswered. It is a really great place to come. I'd miss it.
+8 # Buddha 2014-07-02 15:11
The irony is much more than this radiation is still spewing into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima, and our government is quietly responding by bumping up the amount of radiation exposure they consider "acceptable" so we can all go on in ignorance...
+6 # cherylpetro 2014-07-02 19:29
Yes, that acceptable radiation is terrible! It reminds me of when I worked in a nuclear pharmacy and the owner would turn off the warning Geiger counter, and just have us keep working. 20, or so, years later I came down with a very nasty cancer known to be caused by excessive radiation exposure. How much should we take? It isn't acceptable! GMOs radiation, pesticides, gun attacks; it is not a friendly world, is it? Why don't we collectively rise up and say NO? We need another OCCUPY!
+2 # Buddha 2014-07-04 10:30
Another Occupy would be crushed, and crushed immediately. Our Oligarchs and the government they own learned the lesson last time to not let a mass protest like this get a foothold in the public consciousness, we STILL are talking about wealth inequality and the 1% vs the 99%. By the way, I was an Occupier, at Los Angeles's protests.
+6 # PABLO DIABLO 2014-07-02 16:40
America lost its "moral compass" when it bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Chickens came home to roost now.
0 # cherylpetro 2014-07-02 19:22
Well, Japan was attacking us, but we sure gave it back "in spades!" Seems like we could have been less heavy handed. It was a brutal attack Japan did on the US, though. Tough call. I wouldn't want to be the one making it!
+6 # Kootenay Coyote 2014-07-02 19:41
Fukushima & Carlsbad: boobs, incompetents & buck-passers playing like infants with enduring death. & this is the industry some tout as salvation from Global Scorching. Smart, eh?
+1 # brux 2014-07-05 14:51
These people are f-ing idiots ... it should be the easiest thing in the world to put waste in barrels, but the barrels in some kind of inert containers, put those containers in a stacked array and monitor them with robot droves that drive back and forth looking for leaks or too much radiation ... and if a problem exists then finding the offending barrel or barrels, examining what went wrong, devising how to fix it and then continuing to monitor the waste dump.

Can these super brains who work with this stuff not figure this out? Are they this stupid ... or what is the problem. What is the bottleneck from getting brains to where they can solve a problem?

If it's money then the people who invest in nuclear power are making too much money if there are failures like this ... this is basically fraud if so.
0 # madams12 2014-07-07 10:53
Perhaps what we who live in NM understand and have heard for that we are the "nuclear sacrifice state". between test sites and unaccounted for plutonium on the highlands areas upstream...when there is winter 'melt off' we get to drink or breath those particles in the dust....north of the urban centers....and Carlsbad, way southern leaks into the atmosphere blow north as perhaps they just "want to see the human impact' of low levels steadily, over time. All the while we are eating genetically modified toxins, pesticides foods and chemically polluted you sense a death wish here ?
0 # Robin Gaura 2014-11-18 04:50
For New Mexico residents, just a heads up on health. If you may be breathing or eating radioactive particles, its very important to remove RR GMOs from your diet, (mostly soy and corn). This is especially important for children. The reason is that consumption of glyphosate (the chelating herbicide in Roundup) binds metals and minerals so that they are not available to plants or mammals who eat them. I would recommend switching to organic food asap for the whole family. As GMOs can be in 70% to 85% of the food products in the market, just avoid any processed foods. Many foods grown on depleted soils are mineral deficient, and those sprayed with glyphosate plus adjutants (Roundup went off patent in 2000) are not only mineral deficient, but disturb the digestive system in drastic ways. (See the work of Dr Stephanie Seneff at MIT). When a body is mineral deficient, it is much more likely to absorb radioactive particles. Eat safe, and protect the children.

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