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Dept. of Energy says article allegedly causing radiation fears in New Mexico, West Texas is false

By Leonard Martinez
Published On: Mar 17 2014 04:26:51 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 18 2014 06:25:44 PM CDT
EL PASO, Texas -

An online article stating much of New Mexico and parts of West Texas may need to be evacuated due to a radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is false, according to the U.S. Department of Energy which operates WIPP.

"There is absolutely no basis for these rumors," the Department of Energy said in a statement to ABC-7 Monday afternoon. "Monitoring conducted by Nuclear Waste Partnership of air, soil, water and vegetation are showing no radiation releases that would approach levels causing health concerns. Independent monitoring by the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center has reached similar conclusions. In a recent letter to New Mexico's senators, Ron Curry, regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, noted that "initial field measurements combined with modeling of potential public exposures indicate that it is very unlikely that any exposures would approach regulatory limits or represent a public health concern."

People can view CEMRC's monitoring data at CEMRC.org.

The Department of Energy is having regularly-scheduled town meetings every Thursday to update residents. This week’s will be at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Carlsbad City Council Chambers and will include a detailed discussion of the results of all the environmental monitoring data the Department of Energy has collected to date. Meetings available live online at http://new.livestream.com/rrv/wipptownhall.

The article rattling nerves online is posted at PoliticalEars.com and states “The radiation leak potentially affects 14 million residents in New Mexico, Texas, and Chihuahua (Mexico). If the leak is as bad as some experts speculate, then the effect to the multi-state area could be much like a "dirty bomb", rendering El Paso, Las Cruces, Midland/Odessa, Ciudad Juarez, and other major North American cities inhabitable for decades to come.”

Deb Gil, spokeswoman at WIPP, points the public to http://www.wipp.energy.gov/ for all the updates and reports related to the underground fire that occurred on Feb. 5, 2014, as well as information on a Feb. 13-14 radiation leak at WIPP.

Radiation filters worked as designed when there was an equipment fire at the site in February, capturing more than 99.99 percent of the released radiation.

The WIPP website also states that radiation levels at the site are what you would normally find just about anywhere in the environment - much less than you'd get in a single dental X-ray.

WIPP officials say they have emergency response plans at the facility and ongoing cooperative agreements with emergency management and emergency services in Eddy and Lea Counties. Those agencies are notified when there is an emergency at WIPP.

They also point out that WIPP is centered on 16 square miles of land in a remote area 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad.

The New Mexico Environment Dept. also has created a timeline of the issues associated with WIPP incidents this year:

  • February 5, 2014, a diesel powered salt-hauler vehicle caught fire in the underground forcing workers to evacuate and operations to cease. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, however this event occurred in an area removed from where waste is handled and emplaced. Waste handling operations in the underground will cease while the event is investigated.
  • February 14, 2014, at 11:13 PM a continuous air monitoring (CAM) alarm in the underground indicated the detection of radiation above background trigger points. A second alarm followed immediately indicating detection of radiation at higher levels. This triggered a switch from exhausing air to the environment to first passing exhaust air (effluent) through a filtration system before exhausting to the environment.
  • Since that time, the Department of Energy (DOE) and other sources have confirmed trace amounts of particulate radiation released to the surface and into the atmosphere at the WIPP facility. The release is being monitored by DOE, NMED, and the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring Research Center (CEMRC).
  • The WIPP underground remains shutdown as the DOE and others investigate the cause of the event that released radioactive material to the underground, exhaust system, and surface.
  • February 27, 2014, NMED issued an Administrative Order does not allow commencement of normal operations until NMED inspects and approves the facility (more below).
  • Laboratory analyses of filter media collected following the event are being processed.  Following data validation, these results are made available to the public.
  • Plans are being prepared to conduct additional environmental sampling and analysis to determine the impact this event has on human health and the environment.

The http://www.wipp.energy.gov/ website also has several FAQ from weekly town hall meetings about the nuclear waste stored at WIPP and radiation.

Some of the FAQ, other information on the WIPP website:

Q. Is the radioactive contamination detected on the surface a threat to people or the environment?

A. While the goal for radioactive contamination is always zero, these readings are well below those levels that are harmful to people and the environment.

Q. Does WIPP have emergency response plans? Are plans coordinated with local responders?  

A.  Yes.  WIPP has emergency response plans at the facility and ongoing cooperative agreements with emergency management and emergency services in Eddy and Lea counties. Those agencies are notified when there is an emergency at WIPP. Depending on the nature of the emergency, the official response agency would determine if public protective actions were needed, such as road closure to WIPP. It is important to note that WIPP is centered on 16 sections (16 square miles) of land in a remote area 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad.

Q.  Is it safe to eat deer harvested from around the WIPP area? Is it safe for children to eat them?

A.  Yes. The small release of radioactive particles from WIPP on Feb. 14 is consistent with background radiation levels and well below safety limits established by the Environmental Protection Agency. Background radiation is constantly present in the environment and is emitted from a variety of natural and artificial sources. <click to see more>

Q.  What is a bioassay test?  

A. A bioassay test determines the kinds, quantities or concentrations, and, in some cases, the 

locations of radioactive material in the human body. This is accomplished by measuring radiation within the body by lung counting or by analyzing radioactive material in urine or fecal samples. 

 

Q.   Why does one test show positive and another negative?

A. Different tests have different sensitivities and detection capabilities. For example, lung counting provides fast results but the test is less sensitive and can’t detect all radioactive materials; chest wall thickness also affects the results. Excretion analyses are able to detect very small amounts of radioactive material in the body. Results, however, generally take a long time and many variables can come into play. 

Of the 13 WIPP workers, none tested positive in the chest counts, which indicates they have no detectable radioactive contamination deep in their lungs. These results were confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control.  

Q.   What indicated the initial 13 employees had possible contamination?   

A.  Initial fecal samples measured some radioactivity above normal background levels; follow?up urine samples show no detectable amounts of radioactivity.  

 

Q.    Is there concern that the release was related to the fire event? 

A.    It is highly unlikely due to the distance between the location of the salt haul truck fire and the continuous air monitor (CAM) that detected airborne radiation. Personnel were in the underground on Feb. 13 and the morning and afternoon of Feb. 14; no airborne contamination was present. Filters analyzed from the underground exhaust on the morning of Feb. 15 contained isotopes consistent with transuranic waste, making a connection between events highly unlikely.    

 

Q.   When will we see release data from WIPP? 

A.  Available data results are posted on the WIPP Web Page at www.wipp.energy.gov Recovery Information Center. 

What's Next For WIPP?

Safety Inspections of Mine Shafts Are Next Step in Recovery Process

A package of work and safety controls required before safe re?entry can take place at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) has been prepared by Nuclear Waste Partnership, the management and operations contractor at WIPP.  The package will be submitted to the Department of Energy for review and approval, the next step before sending personnel into the WIPP underground facility to understand the source of the recent radiation release. 

The safety inspections of both the Salt Handling and Air Intake shafts, which require personnel to ride the mine hoist, or elevator, to the bottom of the shaft, will begin after WIPP receives DOE approval.  This activity will then be followed by a second personnel entry into the mine to assure a safe route between the Salt Handling and Air Intake shafts, and to ensure two exits from the mine. The third entry will be made to identify the source of the radioactive contamination.

National Experts Bring Skills to WIPP

The Department of Energy and Global Management & Operations Services (GMOS), a division of URS, and parent company to Nuclear Waste Partnership, have engaged experts across the nation to support WIPP recovery efforts. 

DOE and the Mine Safety and Health Administration have mobilized experts to supplement the Carlsbad Field Office in key areas, including nuclear operations, ventilation systems, nuclear safety and mine safety.

DOE's Savannah River Site sent a team of radiological control technicians, who will re?enter the mine with experienced WIPP personnel to isolate and mitigate the source of underground contamination.

Idaho National Laboratory provided a plutonium event recovery expert and additional radiological equipment.

Los Alamos National Laboratory provided a high efficiency air particulate (HEPA) filters specialist.

URS?CH2M Oak Ridge, contractor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, brought radiological cleanup expertise to WIPP.

MJW Corporation provided experts in occupational and radiation medicine and health physics.

And URS Global Management and Operations Services sent resource management, recovery personnel and experts in documented safety analysis; robotics; environmental, health and safety management; communications and web page design.

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