Something happened in February, something is STILL going on
Environmental radiation releases spiked again in mid-June around the surface site of the only U.S. underground, nuclear weapons waste storage facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), has been shut down since February 14, when its isolation technology failed, releasing unsafe levels of Plutonium, Americium, and other radio-nuclides into the environment around the site.
Radiation levels in the underground storage area, 2,150 feet below the surface vary from near-normal to potentially lethal. At the time of the February accident, more than 20 WIPP workers suffered low level radioactive contamination, even though none of them were underground. WIPP assumes, but cannot confirm, that underground conditions have not changed since May 31, when the last entry team went into the mine, as reported by WIPP field manager Jose Franco on June 5:
As I noted in my previous letter, we have identified the damaged drum believed to be a contributing source of the radiological release. On May 31, an entry team was able to safely and successfully collect six samples from a variety of locations in Panel 7 of Room 7, including from the breached drum and a nearby standard waste box. These sample results are consistent with the contamination previously identified.
In mid-March, WIPP suffered a surface radiation release almost twice the levels released in February. WIPP was designed to isolate highly radioactive nuclear weapons waste from the environment for 10,000 years. It went 15 years before its first leak of radioactivity into the above ground environment.
The latest elevated radiation levels were detected by monitors placed by the New
Mexico Environment Department (NMED). The monitors measure radiation only after it has passed through the WIPP filtration system that is designed to minimize radiation from escaping from the storage area half a mile underground. Radiation levels in the storage area where the original leak occurred are possibly as lethal as Fukushima, hampering efforts to determine the source, cause, and scale of the February leak.
What happened underground remains a mystery and a danger
More than five months after the February accident, official still have no certain understanding of what went wrong. It is generally thought that one 55 gallon drum of waste (perhaps more than one) overheated and burst, spilling radioactive waste in a part of the storage area known as Panel 7, Room 7. This room, designated a "High Contamination Area," measures 33 by 80 feet and presently has 24 rows of waste containers. The room holds 258 containers, tightly stacked and packed wall-to-wall, with no aisles to allow easy access. There is some clearance between the top of the stacks and the room's ceiling.
The high contamination in Room 7 is a threat to human inspectors, limiting inspection of the room to date to mechanical means, primarily cameras on extension arms. As a result of these limitations, WIPP teams have inspected only ten of the 24 rows of waste containers in Room 7. Rows #1-14 have been out of reach of the available equipment.
WIPP has begun building a full scale replica of Room 7 above ground, to provide a realistic staging area in which to test methods of remote observation that might reach the 14 uninspected rows. According to WIPP:
Options include a device that uses carbon fiber rods to extend the camera, a gantry camera suspended on wires, or a boom system mounted on a trolley that would move across the waste face from wall to wall and out 90 feet to view all rows of waste.
WIPP has spent much of June improving the air filtration system to the mine, adding filters that reduce escaping radiation and improving underground air flow for the sake of entry teams. WIPP suspended underground entries on May 31, apparently to improve safety conditions. Reporting on June 18, field manager Jose Franco wrote: