Manned crews established an operations base underground at WIPP nuclear waste disposal facility

CARLSBAD >> The stage has been set for the investigation into February’s radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located 26 miles east of Carlsbad.

Manned crews established an operations base underground at the nuclear waste disposal facility on Friday morning in the southern portion of the mine near the room where plutonium and americium was released. No radiological contamination was detected in the area of the camp that will be used as a base to identify the contamination source. The Department of Energy hopes a third descent into the mine some time next week. “We want it to be as close as possible (to the contaminated room) but in a clean area so we can have entrants remove contaminated equipment and clothing so they don’t take that contamination back to the surface,” said Donavan Mager, communications manager for the Nuclear Waste Partnership.

The workers took salt samples from the underground mine on Friday and the Department of Energy is sending them to Idaho National Laboratory for analysis. The results will help DOE establish a plan for decontamination of the underground if it is deemed necessary.

Two eight-man crews first entered the underground at WIPP on Wednesday for the first time since the initial radiation leak on Feb. 14. They surveyed the salt shaft and air intake shaft stations to confirm there was no radioactive contamination and established communications with the Central Monitoring Room above ground.

“Progress is being made, and we are working tirelessly to return our site to normal operations,” said Joe Franco, DOE Carlsbad Field Office manager, in a letter addressed to Eddy and Lea County residents. “However, the recovery process is not without its challenges (and) we expect an accident investigation report on the radiological release in the near future that will include several areas needing improvement. We are actively implementing procedures and training that bolsters our emergency management practices and aids the protection of our workers and the public from any potential events in the future.”

WIPP disposes transuranic waste, commonly referred to as “TRU,” into the Permian-age salt bedrock 2,150 feet below ground and operations have been halted since Feb. 5 when a vehicle caught on fire underground, forcing evacuations of the mine.

TRU waste primarily consists of clothing, tools, rags, debris, residues and other disposal items contaminated with radioactive elements, mostly plutonium, which were used in manufacturing of Cold War-era nuclear weapons.

Courtesy of Carlsbad News