Public Health New Mexico
2:00 pm
Wed March 19, 2014

Update: Nuclear Waste From New Mexico Lab May Go To Texas

Credit Nicolas Raymond via CC

03/20/14 Update: Nuclear Waste From New Mexico Lab May Go To Texas - The Associated Press

The operator of the nation's troubled nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico wants to temporarily store waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory in rural West Texas until it reopens.

Waste storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad is halted because of a Feb. 5 truck fire and a Feb. 14 radiation leak that contaminated 17 workers.

Nuclear Waste Partnership says it and the Department of Energy propose to ship Los Alamos waste to a Waste Control Specialists site in Texas' Andrews County.

The partnership says the waste would go to the New Mexico plant for final disposal once it reopens.

Los Alamos has promised the state it will get the last of thousands of barrels of plutonium-contaminated clothing, tools, rags and other debris off its campus by June.

Researchers: Radiation Bump Near WIPP Safe

Despite online rumors, officials at the nuclear waste dump in Southeastern New Mexico say residents should not be planning to evacuate.

According to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, radiation levels in the area after February's leak—and a small emission last week—are not a health concern.

There is also increased radiation in Carlsbad and around the nuclear waste plant, but the independent facility charged with monitoring the region says that happens every spring.

Russell Hardy is the director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, which is funded by the Department of Energy. He said March winds churn up dirt and small levels of naturally occurring elements—including uranium, polonium, thorium and radium—that are not manmade. “What we’re seeing right now is just seasonal fluctuation of the natural radioactive materials that are getting blown around,” he said. “If WIPP were not here, we’d still see it.”

WIPP also reported that the plant emitted a small release of radiation on March 11, which officials attribute to contamination trapped in the ventilation system after the Valentine’s Day leak. 

Hardy said the amount of radiation WIPP is reporting is safe, but his independent facility cannot confirm that amount because results haven’t come back, yet. WIPP recorded roughly 1 DPS, or disintegrations per second. Hardy says 37 DPS is an actionable level.

WIPP’s numbers come from a handheld meter that’s held up to a filter when it’s removed from the collector. The center offers a more precise reading by bringing filters back to the facility, digesting them in acid, separating out each isotope, and doing a 24-hour count. This determines the level of activity by isotope, Hardy said.

Hardy lives in Carlsbad and said he has no plans to sell his house. He and his team visit the WIPP site three times a day, at 8 a.m., 4 p.m. and midnight, and he said he’s not afraid to breathe the air out there. He had a full body count and came up negative for americium and plutonium. 

“This is still a safe place,” he said. “There are a couple of websites out there, and I don’t know where they’re getting their science from, but they’re taking results that we’ve put on the web and the Department of Energy has put on the web, and they’re doing some fuzzy magic to them and then showing that the levels are dangerous and people within 100 miles need to evacuate.”

Air data is posted every Thursday at wipp.energy.gov.

There will be a discussion of WIPP’s environmental monitoring on Thursday, March 20, at 5:30 p.m. in the Carlsbad City Council Chambers (101 N. Halagueno Street).

A WIPP representative will speak to the Artesia City Council on Tuesday, March 25, at 7 p.m. at 511 W. Texas Ave.