March 11 was the third anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear incident, where cleanup efforts to contain radioactive contamination continue. In a reminder that such problems are not limited to Japan but a worldwide concern, on 14 February the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico, admitted that their first radiation leak in 15 years exposed 17 WIPP workers to radiation, who inhaled plutonium and americium particles.
The Carlsbad WIPP is one of the world’s three deep repositories and the only one in the U.S. for storing nuclear waste left over from the production and testing of atomic weapons, burying the radioactive waste more than a third of a mile underground in tunnels hewn out of salt beds. The Carlsbad WIPP has received up to 212,000 cubic feet of nuclear waste a year since it opened in 1999. It stores waste from U.S. nuclear labs and weapons production facilities. New Mexican state law regulates hazardous waste facilities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allows New Mexico to issue federal permits for the storage of hazardous waste. Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC manages the site.
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The problem of the safe storage of nuclear waste has a long history, dating back to the World War 2 Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic weapons, when transuranic (TRU) waste began accumulating. In the 1950s the National Academy of Sciences recommended deep disposal of long-lived TRU radioactive wastes in geologically stable formations such as deep salt beds. Throughout the 1960s U.S. government scientists sought an appropriate site for TRU radioactive waste disposal, eventually focusing on a desert region of southeastern New Mexico where, 250 million years earlier, the evaporation of an ancient Permian Sea had created a 2,000-foot-thick salt bed.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “Bedded salt is free of fresh flowing water, easily mined, impermeable and geologically stable; an ideal medium for permanently isolating long-lived radioactive wastes from the environment. However, its most important quality in this application is the way salt rock seals all fractures and naturally closes all openings.”
As for the nature of the radioactive debris stored at the site, in its WIPP webpage the U.S. Department of Energy notes, “WIPP is the nation's only repository for the disposal of nuclear… waste. It consists of clothing, tools, rags, residues, debris, soil and other items contaminated with small amounts of plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements. Disposal of transuranic waste is critical to the cleanup of Cold War nuclear production sites. Waste from DOE sites around the country is sent to WIPP for permanent disposal. TRU waste is categorized as "contact-handled" or "remote-handled" based on the amount of radiation dose measured at the surface of the waste container. Contact-handled waste has a radiation dose rate not greater than 200 millirem (mrem) per hour, while remote-handled waste can have a dose rate up to 1,000 rem per hour. About 96 percent of the waste to be disposed at WIPP is contact-handled.”
The underground storage facility is closed until all testing is complete and they determine out the source of the radiation leak.
The Carlsbad WIPP incident is not New Mexico’s first radiation leak, accident or spill. In 1979, four months after the Three Mile Island accident, New Mexico experienced a high level spill when a breached dam at a uranium mill operated by the United Nuclear Corporation dumped 94 million gallons of effluent and 1,000 tons of acidic radioactive sludge into the Rio Puerco. The “Church Rock Spill” was eventually declared an EPA Superfund site in 1983 after the New Mexico Governor at the time objected to the Navajo Nation’s request that it be named a federal disaster.
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What is certain is that pressure nationwide from the nuclear industry for more facilities similar to WIPP will continue to deal with spent fuel rods from over 100 nuclear facilities around the country, with the industry urging that the long delayed Yucca Mountain repository be funded, finished and fuel recycling initiated there.
On March 20 Energy Department spokesman Brad Bugger said, "We are doing ongoing monitoring of air, soil, water and vegetation, and we are seeing nothing that indicates any health impacts to workers, the public, or the environment."
Local residents are not so sure. Seeking to allay local fears, on March 12 Jose R. Franco, manager of the U.S. Department of Energy Carlsbad Field Office wrote to Eddy and Lea County residents, noting "I have made every aspect of our operations at WIPP open and available to the investigation team" before adding, "I was recently interviewed by a reporter who asked me if I thought WIPP would ever reopen. I told him that WIPP has to reopen, and it will reopen as a safer and stronger operation than it has ever been.”
In the interim, Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC will ship TRU radioactive waste from the federal Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to a dump in Andrews County, Texas, which is operated by Waste Control Specialists LLC.
By John Daly of Oilprice.com