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New Mexico, Same Old Story: Radiation Leaks and a 'Manhattan' Project

Alex Jacobs writes about the radiation leak at the WIPP in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and what it means to New Mexicans.
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On February 14, New Mexico got a Valentines’ Day present, and we are still dealing with the fallout (pun unavoidable) from that event. The WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) facility in Carlsbad, NM finally acknowledged that their first radiation leak in 15 years was larger than first reported. Also a month earlier a truck moving salt caught on fire due to negligence. This is all a half mile "down there" in ancient salt beds. One report said a ceiling panel collapsed at some point and that may have led to an accident, possibly a breached container. Experts said fires or radiation leaks "are not supposed to happen" -- "down there". The mayor of Carlsbad says there’s more room "down there," so it’s OK to send more transuranic waste from all over the country. WIPP says the amount of radiation would equal a visit to the dentist or travelling on an airplane. The waste is contaminated materials and not spent fuel rods. There is no facility that stores or disposes of spent nuclear fuel rods at this time since Yucca Mountain, Nevada, has issues and conflicts.

Now that the silence has been lifted, there are more press conferences and community meetings every Thursday. Thirteen workers who were tested because of possible plutonium and americium inhalation received negative results, but 3 more of the other 140 workers are now being tested. The testing is for urine and feces analysis and they can be given chemicals that bind with any radiated materials to speed excretion. Whole body counter scans are also being given to people who may have been exposed, workers, visitors and press, but they don’t detect the small quantities that urine/feces tests can.

Photo: 4time2fun-com_via_buzzfeed

The underground storage facility is closed until all testing is complete and they find out where the radiation "leaked" from. Initial reports said a recent truck shipment was the cause, but did not specify whether the container was leaking, or the outside of the container was contaminated. Another report said workers can’t even go "down there" to do more tests until air samples say that radiation levels are deemed safe. That leaves New Mexico and Federal officials at odds: Who is in charge of the timeline, as the truck shipments continue to pile up the "transuranic waste" containers outside in holding areas? The normal "legal" wait for these containers is one month, now they are expected to be stored outside for up to 3 ½ months. This is the only facility in the country accepting such shipments. Now transuranicwaste may be piling up in your area at a local nuclear facility.

Now we are reminded that this was not first radiation leak, accident or spill. New Mexico experienced a high level spill caused by the United Nuclear Corporation when waste was accidently dumped at the milling operation and eventually into the Rio Puerco in 1979. It was called the Church Rock Spill, it happened near and on the Navajo Nation and remains one of the biggest radiation contamination in history after the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents. Church Rock was comparable to Three Mile Island, and another radiation release that occurred at the Kerr-McGee Sequoyah Corporation in Oklahoma in 1986.

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In the Church Rock spill, which happened only four months after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, a spill from a breached dam at a uranium mill dumped 94 million gallons of effluent and 1000 tons of acidic radioactive sludge into the Rio Puerco. The spill was finally declared an EPA Superfund site in 1983 after the New Mexico Governor at the time objected to the Navajo Nation’s request that it be named a federal disaster.

New Mexico’s nuclear legacy is exposed again as debate continues about the Los Alamos and Sandia facilities, their funding and missions. Most ordinary folks would like to see the whole Los Alamos facility gear-down from its nuclear mission and re-tool to research and develop other forms of power and energy. Meanwhile they continue to talk about how many "nuclear pits" are needed to make new bombs, and how safe and secure it all is. There is much anxiety over federal funding as the new Obama budget is being released and is up for debate. That budget reportedly will cut funding that would cover an accidental spill and clean-up like the current one at WIPP.

Local Carlsbad residents, even those who work there or are dependent on WIPP’s economic benefits, are worried because "no one knows anything." They are glad that the EPA has come in to investigate as well, because they don’t know if they can trust what WIPP officials have to say about the leak and any radiation contamination. You can go to to observe the weekly community meetings and go to to see what they have to say about facts and rumors. Anti-nuke watch groups have been posting stories such as extrapolating the size and range of radiation "clouds" and telling people in New Mexico, Texas and Mexico to prepare for possible evacuation. Rumors fly because facts are few -- "no one knows anything" -- explanations are criticized and officials are mistrusted. WIPP says they are training their own staff to deal with whatever they find "down there," air samples have returned to normal and testing crews should be entering the closed off areas soon.

Southeast New Mexico and Loving County in west Texas are trying to land interim or permanent radioactive waste storage and disposal sites to deal with spent fuel rods from over 100 nuclear facilities around the country. Promises of jobs and "billions of dollars" are the lure, and people are taking sides on the issue. The thinking is that if they build the site, a recycling plant process for spent nuclear fuel would eventually come there. Disposal is a vague term since the waste and rods would be stored for "10,000 years" in a "repository." The Savannah River site in South Carolina was seeking to develop the process of recycling spent nuclear fuel rods into safe, commercial nuclear energy. The project stopped after they flew past the projected $4.5 billion cost, hitting $8 billion with no end in sight. Spent fuel rods are now stored next to the reactors in pools or in dry casks. Recycling occurs in France, UK, Russia, Japan and India. The nuclear industry wants the Yucca Mountain repository funded and finished and fuel recycling initiated. Their experts say this recycled nuclear fuel waste would decay in a few hundred years. Politics, security issues and federal funding have kept this issue at a standstill.

To further cloud our sense of reality and history, it was just announced by Governor Susana Martinez herself that a new cable TV show, titled Manhattan, will start filming in Santa Fe and surrounding areas. It will tell the story of The Manhattan Project and the scientific team that created the A-bomb program, covering about 10 years from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. It will no doubt glorify and mythologize New Mexico's "shotgun wedding" to the nuclear industry.