There's never a good week for nuclear waste, but this week has been a particularly bad one. Officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico have disclosed that 13 employees inhaled radioactive material after a major accident earlier this month.
While there's no risk to the public and the exposed workers did not need immediate medical treatment, the incident is shaping up to be a major setback for the nation's only dedicated nuclear waste dump.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is a one-of-a-kind facility. Located just outside Carlsbad, the plant is mostly underground — more than 2,000 feet beneath the surface is a network of tunnels and rooms dug from an ancient salt bed left over from when the area was an ocean. Inside, the government stores radioactive junk from Cold War nuclear bomb production facilities. So far, the plant has accepted more than 80,000 cubic meters of waste, enough to fill several soccer fields.
On Feb. 14 around 11:30 p.m. local time, something happened underground. Nobody knows exactly what went wrong, but the most likely scenario is that a huge chunk of salt fell from the ceiling and ruptured a drum or multiple drums of waste. The plant's safety systems quickly kicked in: The air from inside the underground facility was sucked through a series of filters designed to catch radiation before it escaped.
Initially, it seemed the system had worked flawlessly. But two days later, independent monitoring stations operated by New Mexico State University detected radioactive americium and plutonium on the surface. The levels are extremely low, well below Environmental Protection Agency reporting limits, according to Russell Hardy, head of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, which runs the stations.
"I do not believe there's any environmental or health concern associated with what information we have to date," Hardy told NPR.
The story didn't end there. On Wednesday, officials said samples from 13 employees on duty the night of the accident indicated they had inhaled radioactive americium. At a news conference on Thursday, Farok Sharif, president of Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, the contracting firm that runs the plant, said the levels appeared to be very low. They are continuing to monitor the workers closely.
Sharif also said more workers might have been exposed. The morning after the accident, personnel returned to the plant apparently unaware that radiation had been detected on the surface. The workers were instructed to shelter in place later that morning, after a radiation release was confirmed. They were allowed to return home in the afternoon, but now those workers, too, must be checked for possible exposure.
Sharif says a plan is being formulated to re-enter the underground tunnel system and assess the damage. It's a process that likely will take weeks. It may be many months, a year or even longer before operations can resume.
While Hardy says the health and environmental risks are low, the incident is a big blow to nuclear waste disposal in this country. Until this month, the plant had operated for 15 years without a single incident. This accident (and an underground fire earlier this month) will likely force a hard look at safety procedures.
And more broadly, it could be yet another setback for long-delayed plans to take nuclear waste from power plants and store it underground.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
Let's hear now about a nuclear scare in New Mexico that came to light yesterday. At a press conference, government officials and private contractors he announced that 13 people had been exposed to radioactivity at the nation's largest nuclear waste dump.
Joining us to discuss what happened is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. And Geoff, we should start by saying this is not your traditional nuclear plant that a lot of the sort of have in our minds. This is a different kind of facility, right?
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: That's right. This is called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and it's located in southeastern New Mexico near Carlsbad. And what this basically is is it's a network of tunnels and rooms that have been dug out deep underground in an ancient salt bed, from actually - from the time when New Mexico used to be an ocean. Now down there they're storing a lot of junk that's basically left over from the Cold War. And so all this radioactive stuff that's been left over is being moved out to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and stored deep underground. There's a lot down there. There is 80,000 cubic meters of waste - that's enough to fill several football fields.
GREENE: Wow. So what happened there?
BRUMFIEL: You know, nobody knows exactly what happened. That's one of the strange things about this. But what we do know is that at 11:30 PM on Valentine's Day, something caused one of the radiation monitors deep underground to trigger. And the speculation I've been hearing is that a chunk of salt, probably, fell off the ceiling and struck a drum or drums and ruptured it. Now what, another thing we know about the situation is that the safety systems appeared to have worked pretty well. There's a massive filtration system that's designed to kick in and keep radioactivity from leaking out to the surface. So far as we can tell, it worked pretty well. Most of the radioactivity was contained underground.
GREENE: You say most was contained underground. But one thing we do know is that some radioactivity did get out, right?
BRUMFIEL: Yeah. That's right. Initially, the Department of Energy - which runs this facility - said there was no radioactive release. But a few days later, an independent monitor run by New Mexico State University picked up radioactive plutonium and americium.
GREENE: So is the public at risk at all? Is there a way to tell yet?
BRUMFIEL: Oh, I think it's very unlikely there is risk to the public. I spoke to Russell Hardy, who runs the New Mexico state monitoring program, and the numbers he shared with me are really very, very low - well below EPA limits. And so they're falling as well, so I think it's really unlikely that the public is going to be at risk from this.
GREENE: Well Geoff, I gather, though, there are risks for these workers who were exposed.
BRUMFIEL: That's right. At a press conference, yesterday, officials said that 13 workers had detectable levels of radioactivity in their, either urine or stool samples. And while they don't think that they need to do any medical interventions right now, they are following these workers quite closely to see how this radioactivity clears their system. And it turns out there may have been more workers exposed. What appears to have happened is the day after the accident, everyone went back to work. Because, remember, they didn't know, at the time, that radioactivity had made it out to the surface.
GREENE: Oh wow.
BRUMFIEL: So then what happened was they picked up the radioactivity, they told everyone to shelter in place for a couple of hours and sent them all home. But now all those workers need to be checked for radioactive exposure.
GREENE: Briefly, Geoff, I mean this is the nation's big nuclear waste site. I mean, is this just something that happens once in awhile or are there some lessons here to be learned?
BRUMFIEL: I think there are definitely lessons to be learned here. This site has operated for about 15 years without an accident, so it's had a good safety record up until now. But clearly something's gone wrong. Unfortunately, nobody can go underground, just yet, to find out what's happened. And until that happens, this is going to be a big setback, because there's still a lot of radioactive junk all over the country that needs to come to this site...
GREENE: And can't get there because of this accident, now, I would imagine.
BRUMFIEL: That's right. And then there's, sort of, this broader problem, as well, which is that the nation has a lot of just nuclear waste from power plants and the weapons process. And this stuff needs to go somewhere. Scientists agree it should go underground. After this accident, there's going to be a reexamination of that policy and I think it may further delay the long term disposal of nuclear waste.
GREENE: NPR science correspondent Geoff Blumfiel. Thanks Geoff.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.