A leak at the only underground nuclear waste dump in the United States is now believed to be releasing radiation into the air, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced Monday, sparking alarm among residents near the southeastern New Mexico site.
"There's been radioactivity from nuclear waste released on the surface into the environment," said Don Hancock, Director of the Nuclear Waste Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, in an interview with Common Dreams. "This was never supposed to happen. That's a very serious thing. We don't know yet what caused this release, or how much has been released."
Samples taken near the federally-run Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), 25 miles east of the town of Carlsbad, showed "slightly elevated levels of airborne radioactive concentrations, which are consistent with the waste disposed," according to the DOE.
"There is an awful lot more that should be known before we can assess the risk. The DOE has a long history of playing keep-away with the facts and promoting nuclear power."
—Arnie Gundersen, nuclear expert
WIPP holds plutonium-contaminated military waste, generated by nuclear weapons production across the United States, including Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico. The waste is stored deep beneath the earth's surface in salt formations.
New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn stated last week, “Events like this simply should never occur. From the state’s perspective, one event is far too many.”
Residents have long complained that WIPP, as well as nuclear waste transport across the state, puts local communities at risk, including the Native American reservations, school districts, and highways the waste passes through en route to the repository. Tewa Women United, an indigenous organization based in northern New Mexico, slams the "negative impacts that pollution and nuclear contamination have on our bodies, minds, spirits, lands, air and water" in a statement on their website.
The revelation of airborne radiation comes one week after the DOE announced detection of what they said was likely was an underground radiation leak at the facility — a leak that was later confirmed. Radioactive shipments to WIPP have been halted since February 5th when a vehicle caught on fire underground, forcing the evacuation of the facility.
In their statement released Monday, the DOE sought to downplay the danger from airborne radiation, claiming that the "concentrations remain well below a level of public or environmental hazard" with a "potential dose of less than one millirem." They compared this to the typical chest x-ray, in which the patient is exposed to approximately 10 millirems.
Yet, Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer and nuclear safety advocate at Fairewinds Associates and former nuclear industry executive turned whistleblower, told Common Dreams that this comparison doesn't work. "The difference is that the x-ray is broadly distributed externally over a large piece of mass. On the other hand, the radioactivity in the air is in a particular form that can deposit in your lung. Radioactive material is attracted to your lung tissue. What you breathe in does not come out. This comparison does not take into account the internal exposure these people receive."
"Very serious... unfortunate, but it is what it is."
—DOE Field Office Manager
Approximately 300 concerned Carlsbad residents crowded into a public meeting Monday night to demand answers from WIPP officials.
"I'm just a mom," said Anna Hovrud, according to the Associated Press. "[A]nd my first reaction was to start praying. [...] Is there a chance we could be exposed to radiation, that we are being poisoned somehow, while we are waiting for these samples?"
The situation is "very serious" and "unfortunate," acknowledged Department of Energy Carlsbad Field Office Manager Joe Franco at the meeting, according to the Carlsbad Current-Argus. "But it is what it is," he added.
Yet, some attendees expressed doubt about the DOE's transparency. "I feel like they are not telling us everything," said area resident Leah Hunt, according to the AP.
Gundersen concurs. "The DOE is giving us one tenth of a percent of the information they really know," he said. "In fact there is an awful lot more that should be known before we can assess the risk. The DOE has a long history of playing keep-away with the facts and promoting nuclear power."
The DOE did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.