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CEMRC spokesman addresses NM nuke-waste facility "radiation incident"

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The entrance to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
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TULSA, Okla. -- Developments continue to arise in relation to the release of radioactive isotopes from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located in Carlsbad, New Mexico, as first reported here at Red Dirt Report this past Sunday.

Our story, “Serious ‘radiation incident’ at NM waste facility has public concerned” generated intense social media interest Monday, as well as an independent report from News Channel 4 (KFOR) in Oklahoma City headlined “Could a leak at New Mexico’s nuclear waste site reach the Sooner State?

Despite concerns that there may have been airborne particles of Plutonium and Americium blown eastward into the Texas panhandle and into Oklahoma, local readings are so far not showing that to be the case.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency reports in its “RadNet” gross gamma count rate data readings between Feb. 3 and Feb. 21, 2014 – the time period where the Carlsbad event is reported to have taken place – are within “normal” gamma levels.

A Red Dirt Report reader in Luther informed us that he has a Geiger counter on his property and that normal background radiation readings there are between 10 and 30 counts per minute and that when he last observed it on Monday afternoon it was reading between 20 and 30 counts per minute. The reader added that if it were closer to 100 counts per minute “I would start to worry.”

Meanwhile, Red Dirt Report has been investigating this incident further, contacting one of the most knowledgeable figures in this story – Russell Hardy, Director of New Mexico State University’s Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center. Hardy provided a lot of scientific information for our readers.

Hardy, we should note, is very familiar with Carlsbad’s WIPP facility, originally designed with the purpose of providing secure containment for waste related to the defense industry. And since the incident earlier this month, authorities are awaiting the results of a series of tests being performed on filters from the site.

The WIPP site, Hardy told Red Dirt Report, deals specifically with a type of waste dubbed “transuranic.” This term refers to elements which are described as heavier than uranium, essentially indicating a higher atomic number.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, TRU waste as it is also called, is derived from man-made elements, most commonly plutonium, and is generally associated with the production of nuclear weapons in relation to defense facilities.

Filters located at the WIPP facility recorded abnormal levels of radiation at the facility on Feb. 14, 2014.

“The event happened on Friday night at around 11:30, and our folks weren’t allowed on site until Tuesday morning at about nine o’clock,” Hardy said.

The CEMRC is in charge of testing the filters, and Hardy himself already possesses a familiarity with the site. He spoke regarding theories that a salt-truck having caught fire Feb. 5 may have a link to the Feb. 14 incident.

“I really don’t think there’s a connection, number one because of the time difference and number two and I’ve been underground many times and so I’m very aware of where the waste is stored as opposed to where this fire took place,” said Hardy.

“There’s quite a bit of distance between where the salt-haulage truck caught fire and where the waste is actually stored. I personally don’t believe there is a connection,” said Hardy, addressing the possible relationship of the two incidents seen within a week of one another.

At the time of the incident alarms were triggered resulting in the evacuation of the plant, meanwhile those in the surrounding areas as well as more distant regions are waiting to hear findings of the CEMRC regarding the presence of Americium-241 as well as Plutonium-239 and 240 in filters charged with monitoring ambient air quality outside the plant and air quality within.

“We have received two types of filters, our ambient air samplers which are out, above ground, in the air around the facility and we received two filters from the exhaust shaft itself, one is before the HEPA filter, and one is after,” said Hardy.

“The filters that we received before will tell us the maximum activity and the ones after the HEPA filtration will tell us exactly what’s getting out into the environment,” said Hardy.

One of the radioactive isotopes detected, Americium-24, is a common component of industrial smoke detectors. It emits alpha particles as well as gamma rays and has a half-life of approximately 432.7 years.

According to the EPA Plutonium-239, yet another radioactive isotope found at the site, is used in the making of nuclear weapons, and has a half-life of 24,100 years.

An element’s half-life is determined by the time it takes half of the atoms of the radioactive isotope to decay. Plutonium-240 possesses a half-life of only 6,560 years.

Plutonium emits mostly alpha radiation, which is generally considered less harmful than beta or gamma radiation when not inhaled or ingested. Alpha particles are larger and generally do not travel very far from their source due to their size and energy. However, once ingested, it can cause radiation poisoning.

Beta radiation, slightly more energetic than its alpha counterpart, poses similar risk if inhaled or ingested, and requires moderate protective covering of the skin in order to not become absorbed by the body.

Gamma radiation, the most powerful of the three, can travel at the speed of light. This type of radiation can cause severe damage to internal organs in addition to radiation sickness. According to the EPA as long as gamma rays have energy they are capable of traveling a significant distance through empty space, and are capable of penetrating human tissue to a depth of several centimeters.

Speaking to the duration of time the public can expect to wait for findings, Hardy outlined the process used and the projected wait for information regarding the filters.

“It takes three-to-five days to digest filters, separate out the various types of isotopes and count them in our alpha and gamma counters to see the level of activity,” said Hardy.

Several reports by the media have claimed that radiation has been found as far as a half of a mile away from the WIPP facility.

“Our only reading so far is six-tenths of a mile from the site,” said Hardy, addressing the claims.

In regards to how the radioactive particles made it that far, Hardy spoke of one possibility: “Our hypothesis at this point is that in the underground they have 4,000 cubic feet of air per minute moving through the repository, so you know it’s quite a bit of air that goes through the mine. The way the system is designed is when there is a detection of radiation it automatically shifts the ventilation system within the mine to lower the air speed and to go through a set of HEPA filters.”

Elaborating, Hardy attributes the presence of the particles already found on an above ground filter to the seconds between the plant’s recognition of the problem and the HEPA filter’s automatic response.

“So if you can imagine that shift in filtration may take, I don’t know, five, ten, twenty, thirty, seconds, or however long that takes, that there is a chance that once whatever was released got into the air,” said Hardy. ”There was a small moment in time where some radioactive particles could have gotten out of the mine before the system fully shifted to ventilation through the HEPA filters.”

HEPA stands for high-efficiency particulate absorption. Filters bearing the name must meet strict air-quality standards set by the United States Department of Energy, one stipulation being that they must remove 99.7-percent of particles 0.3 micrometers or smaller from air passing through them.

Added Hardy: “So we think, and again we’re going to do more extensive testing, but we think that that puff of radioactive dust if you will, drifted across our ambient air sensor that is six-tenths of a mile from the facility, and that that’s how we got it on our filter.”

Hardy cannot say whether or not it is likely there will be any significant environmental damage, but cites the state and federal government’s possible coming involvement.

“That would be up to the EPA and the Environmental State Department,” said Hardy.

And also there in Carlsbad, as we noted in our earlier report, the Carlsbad Current-Argus featured a report today regarding Monday night’s special town hall event, attended by 300 Carlsbad-area residents, who wanted to ask officials questions about the WIPP radiation leak.

As Current-Argus reporter Zack Ponce wrote, officials reassured the public “that the levels of radiation that escaped from WIPP’s underground into the outside air is safe.”

This coincided with a  new Department of Energy assessment of the accident – its cause still unknown – claiming that “there is no contamination threat for the local citizens in southeast New Mexico.”

“Everything is looking good and safe,” said Nuclear Waste Partnership spokesman Farok Sharif. “There is no indication at all to say that we have any issues.”

Red Dirt Report will continue to monitor this story.

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