CARLSBAD, N.M.–U.S. regulators say that radiation leaking from a nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico does not pose a threat to human health and safety, but so far officials have been unable to determine the source of the leak.
Radioactive isotopes have been detected in the air a half-mile from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site near Carlsbad, N.M., and an official from New Mexico State University’s Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center confirmed that amounts of plutonium and americium have been found in an air filter monitor in an area northwest of the WIPP.
The U.S Department of Energy has assembled a team to investigate the radiation leak, which was first detected on Feb. 15, 10 days after a truck caught fire in an underground section of the site separate from the area where nuclear waste is stored.
The controversial WIPP site began operating in 1999 amid community protests. The site serves as the first and only deep geological nuclear waste dump in the nation. Plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other defense projects is transported to the facility, where it is buried in storage rooms carved from underground salt beds. All shipments of radioactive waste have been suspended, but the Energy Department said that it is developing plans for personnel to re-enter the facilities and accept new shipments.
The levels of radioactive material in and around the site are the highest ever found since WIPP began operating 15 years ago, enough to trigger automatic air monitoring systems, but below the threshold the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers to be a threat to human health and the environment.