Officials Probe Radiation Leak At Nuclear Waste Dump

By Elaine Baumgartel
March 10, 2014

Officials at the nation's only underground nuclear-waste dump in southern New Mexico sent in a probe Friday after a radiation leak in mid-February exposed workers and caused the facility to shut down.

The leak was detected thousands of feet underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, where the nation stores waste from nuclear weapons production.

The facility’s filtration system kicked on to prevent radiation from being released above ground. But within days, elevated levels in the air were detected a half-mile away.

The Department of Energy's Joe Franco says researchers calculated where the particles might have gone.

"We sent a team out there in protective equipment to go take some samples along the main path routes that were identified," Franco said. He said tests on plant and soil samples found no contamination.

But nuclear watchdog Don Hancock says there are reasons to worry.

"Yes, it's very small amounts, but there is continuing radioactivity in the underground that can come out, even through the filter system," he said.

Researchers say nearby radiation readings are far below safety levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Thirteen workers tested positive for exposure, but plant officials say a second round of tests show these workers are unlikely to get sick.

Sending a probe to explore the underground plant should allow officials to determine when it’s safe to send down crews to find out what caused the leak and when the plant can re-open.