Major Nuclear Dump Has Leaked, But Does US Gov't Have a Plan B?
A radioactive leak from a New Mexico underground nuclear dump that was championed as a safe long-term repository calls into question the federal government’s overall approach to disposing of dangerous waste from nuclear weapons production, experts warn.
“This leak just proved that out of sight is not out of mind,” said Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer and nuclear safety advocate at Fairewinds Associates and former nuclear industry executive turned whistleblower, in an interview with Common Dreams. “You can have a problem when you get this stuff underground, and then what do you do?”
The federally-owned Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southeastern New Mexico, which stores nuclear waste deep beneath the earth’s surface in salt formations, is the only underground repository for materials above the lowest level of radiation. It is the bedrock of the U.S. government’s current approach to dispose of military-generated plutonium-contaminated transuranic waste from decades of nuclear bomb production and testing. Since it became operational in 1999, WIPP has collected this waste from across the United States, including Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico.
The Department of Energy declares on their website that “WIPP has set the standard for safe, permanent disposal of long-lived radioactive defense wastes.”
Yet, this standard has been called into question since a series of mishaps forced the facility to halt its operations. On February 5th, a vehicle caught on fire underground, forcing the evacuation of the facility and sending six workers to the hospital with smoke inhalation-related injuries. On February 14th, an alarm detected a suspected radiation leak which has since been confirmed to have released radioactive particles into the air.
The DOE and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates WIPP, admit that they do not yet know what caused the leak or what its health impacts will be. The DOE announced Wednesday that 13 workers tested positive for radiation, yet they say many more tests are needed and the number of people contaminated could rise.
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