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UNLUCKY 13: WIPP workers were exposed in "radiation incident"

Chip Simons / Forbes
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, NM was the site of a fairly serious radiation leak in mid-Feb. 2014.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – In what has turned out to be one of the most-read stories at Red Dirt Report, the “radiation incident” at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico two weeks ago has generated intense interest locally, around the country and around the world.

And as this story grows by the day – with a mix of denials, obfuscation and half-truths from local and federal officials – we learned late Wednesday that the Department of Energy has stated that 13 WIPP employees were exposed to radioactive particles, most likely Americium-241, that mysteriously escaped from the underground “tombs” where the highly-radioactive “trasuranic” waste is stored.

Whether or not more people in the surrounding area were exposed is as yet unknown. 

The Carlsbad Current-Argus reports this evening that officials are saying “airborne contamination was likely at very low levels” and that the workers “were only exposed to internal dose of radiation.”

“It is premature to speculate on the health effects of these preliminary results, or any treatment that may be needed,” said Department of Energey Carlsbad field office manager Joe Franco.

According to the DOE's Hanford website, in Washington state, "As of 2013, more than 649 shipments of TRU (transuranic) waste have been transported off the Hanford Site (in Washington state), and the equivalent of over 59,000 drums of waste has been removed from the ground" and shipped to the WIPP site in New Mexico.

Meanwhile, we see at POTRblog.com, a website that has been closely monitoring this situation, that coinciding with this “radiation incident” in Carlsbad, in southeastern New Mexico, Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque reportedly just ordered “1,200 particulate-radiation suits” to purportedly prepare “for another massive Plutonium release from DOE’s WIPP plant outside Carlsbad, New Mexico.”

Whether or not that is true, we have not been able to independently confirm. 

Considering the unprecedented interest in our story on this incident, it is clear that the public is nervous about this release and what really happened.

In fact, the Current-Argus, in a separate story, notes that a lab in Carlsbad – the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring & Research Center near New Mexico State University – has seen “as many requests for appointments as it normally does in six months” to see if area residents have been exposed to Americium, Plutonium or other radioactive particles that may have escaped from the DOE nuke-waste facility.

CEMRC director Russell Hardy, whom Red Dirt Report’s Mariah Harnish interviewed earlier this week, said that since the release of radioactive contamination at the WIPP plant, “sixteen people have scheduled scans.”

The Current-Argus story also notes that “with online talk of radioactive plumes reaching Texas and Oklahoma, Hardy said he has received many calls from Oklahoma.”

So far, we have not seen any official reports confirming the presence of radiation contamination in Oklahoma as a result of this unfortunate incident.

And as an aside, the city of Carlsbad, and it's former mayor, Bob Forrest, was a key figure in bringing WIPP to his city at the edge of the Chihuahuan desert. In a 2012 profile in Forbes headlined "Nuke us!" Forrest praised WIPP, noting how few accidents had occured over the then-13 years WIPP had been operational. As Forrest told Forbes two years ago: "We’'ve proven that nuclear waste can be disposed of in a safe, reliable way.”"

We are not sure if former Carlsbad Mayor Bob Forrest has made any statements in the wake of this very serious incident at the WIPP site.

As we have previously said, Red Dirt Report will continue to monitor this situation.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from... read more

About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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