UPDATE 7:20p 02/21:
Department of Energy officials say radiation levels detected in and around the nation's only underground nuclear waste repository are consistent with a leak at the southeastern New Mexico facility.
Carlsbad field office manager Jose Franco said Thursday that readings from sensors above and below ground indicate the radiation is coming from waste stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. But officials won't know what caused the leak until they can get underground to investigate. That could be weeks.
On Saturday, the DOE announced an underground monitor detected airborne radiation. On Wednesday, an independent monitoring center said it also found evidence of an above ground escape.
Franco says it is the first such release from the plant since it opened 15 years ago. He also said the levels are still well below those deemed unsafe.
Scientists who monitor the nation's only underground nuclear waste repository in Southeastern New Mexico say they’ve detected radiation in the air a half-mile from the site.
Russell Hardy, director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, said Wednesday that a monitor near the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico has detected trace amounts of the radioactive isotopes americium and plutonium.
Hardy says the levels are the highest ever detected at or around the site but he adds that the levels are far below those deemed unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency (37 becquerels compared to the 0.64 measured near the WIPP facility).
"If you think in dollars and cents, you're allowed $37," Hardy explained, "and we've seen $0.64 of activity."
The readings came after a radiation alert over the weekend from an underground sensor at the site.
Hardy says based on the short time frame of the center's measurements and the fact that there was detection of radiation underground, his hypothesis is that the above-ground radiation is from the WIPP facility.
Hardy says readings will be completed next week on filters collected from that underground sensor and an air monitor closer to the plant.
"We don't know what happened inside that might have caused a release," Hardy said. "We don't know why it happened and we don't know whether it could happen again."