Thirteen employees of a New Mexico nuclear waste dump who were at work when a radioactive leak was detected Feb. 14 have tested positive for radiation contamination.
The workers, employees of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Southeastern New Mexico, were tested as a precautionary measure after the “radiological event” occurred and air monitors in the area began registering radioactive particles on Feb. 15.
WIPP’s Radiological Control Program collected biological samples from each of the employees present at the site during the leak. A part of the testing called a bioassay, used to determine whether radioactive contamination from outside the body has been inhaled or ingested, read positive for each of the workers.
U.S. regulators maintained that the radiation leaking from the facility did not pose a threat to human health and safety, but WIPP officials said that that it’s too early to tell what effects the radiation will have on the workers’ health and what types of treatment may be required.
The WIPP site began operating in 1999 serves as the first and only deep geological nuclear waste dump in the nation. The site buries plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other defense projects in storage rooms carved from underground salt beds.
Ten days before the radioactive leak was detected, a truck caught fire in an underground section of the facility separate from the waste. However, officials don’t think the leak is tied to that incident. What’s causing radioactive particles to escape from the facility remains a mystery.
Before the workers were tested for exposure, WIPP officials said they were planning on lifting the suspension of new waste shipments to the site and would send its workers back into the facility.