« Karl Grossman commemorating three years of Fukushima catastrophe | Main | Unbowed and unrepentant, "Transform Now Plowshares" sentenced »

Thirteen DOE workers contaminated in underground NM nuke dump accident: trace plutonium contamination detected above ground 1/2 mile from exhaust shaft

A nuclear accident has occurred at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Waste Isolation Pilot Plant deep underground near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The WIPP site stores nuclear waste, principally plutonium-239, plutonium-240 and americium-241 contaminated material and equipment from the US nuclear weapons program. On February 26th, the DOE announced that 13 workers are internally contaminated with americium-241.   The employees were working above ground on February 14 when the contamination allegedly surfaced.  The WIPP site alarm initially went off on February 5 when a “vehicle fire” prompted the evacuation of DOE contract workers from the tunnel network burrowed more than 2000 feet underground in the salt dome formation.  New Mexico State health officials are upset that the federal officials withheld information for days on the radioactive leak. Americium and plutonium contamination has been monitored above ground, more than ½ mile from the waste storage tunnel network exhaust shaft to the surface. Details are still emerging.

The WIPP nuclear waste accident and releases of radioactivity raises serious questions and concerns about the reliability of licensing such facilities. WIPP is licensed for 10,000 years as an "islolation" facility but is now leaking radioactivity to the surface after only 15 years. The casks (TRUPACT) used to transport and geologically store plutonium contaminated materials have apparently failed to meet the quality control and assurance standards they were licensed to, as well.

WIPP has long been targeted for a "Centralized Interim Storage" parking lot dump for commercial high-level radioactive waste (as in Senate Bill 1240), and even for the burial of commercial irradiated nuclear fuel in a so-called "consent-based" geologic repository. This proposed permanent disposal persists, despite the fact that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) acknowledged in 2008 that burial of irradiated nuclear fuel in salt formations is not appropriate. The intense thermal heat could collapse the burial chambers. Dr. Arjun Makhijani, President of IEER, and expert witness on behalf of a coalition of dozens of environmental groups, made this point in his testimony to NRC during the Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS) on Nuclear Waste Confidence (see page 6, 9, 41, etc.) on Dec. 20, 2013. At pages 43-44 of his testimony, Dr. Makhijani quotes an NRC admission from 2010 that: " geologic media previously identified as a candidate host, with the exception of salt formations for SNF [spent nuclear fuel], has been ruled out based on technical or scientific information. Salt formations are being considered as hosts only for reprocessed nuclear materials  because heat generating waste, like SNF, exacerbates a process by which salt can rapidly deform. This process could cause problems with keeping drifts stable and open during the operating period of a repository."


Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping (CARD) and Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) have extensive background libraries online regarding WIPP.