The Department of Energy doesn’t seem to be reassuring many people that it has everything under control following the radioactive leak at its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) three weeks ago.
But at a meeting last night near the WIPP site in Carlsbad, New Mexico, both local residents and officials expressed frustration with DOE and its either inability or reluctance to provide concrete information about what happened and what comes next.
“Nobody knows what the plans look like. Nobody knows what the agenda looks like. We just hear a lot of surmises about what might happen and what might not happen,” John Heaton, a former state representative and head of Mayor Dale Janway’s nuclear task force, told a panel of officials at the town hall.
The radioactive leak, which came nine days after a different incident where a truck caught fire at the plant, released measurable amounts of radioactive plutonium and americium into the air at least a half-mile away. 13 workers in the plant at the time and believed exposed to the radiation were tested by DOE, which said they should experience no health effects. However, an unknown number of other workers at the plant who may have been exposed have yet to be tested.
The WIPP site accepts only transuranic radioactive materials generated from the production of nuclear weapons and related processes. It doesn’t take the much hotter and more radioactive high-level waste from commercial nuclear reactors. But with the end of the Yucca Mountain commercial high-level radioactive waste dump in Nevada (although some Republican legislators are still trying to revive that project), there has been considerable talk in industry circles about using the WIPP site for commercial waste.
But the leak, and DOE’s continuing lack of transparency and even understanding of what has happened, make that an increasingly unlikely prospect. As it stands, WIPP will remain closed for accepting any new waste for some time–some estimates are as long as a year.
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