CARLSBAD, N.M. – Residents and local officials voiced frustration Thursday with the amount of information being released by the U.S. Department of Energy about a radiation leak last month at the nation’s only underground nuclear waste dump.
John Heaton, a former state representative and head of Mayor Dale Janway’s nuclear task force, said at a town hall meeting in Carlsbad that the community feels as if it’s being sidestepped, with action being orchestrated in Washington, D.C., instead of locally.
Energy Department officials said there’s no intent to hide anything and some information is simply unknown.
Questions about what caused the leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the extent of the contamination and the future of the federal government’s national nuclear cleanup efforts have been swirling for several days.
Carlsbad resident Karen Armendariz said her first concern after hearing about the leak was the extent of any contamination and whether her children and grandchildren would be affected.
“I hear what they’re saying and I want to believe it, but it’s just so much uncertainty,” she said. “We do feel poorly informed.”
Some of the uncertainty was quelled late Wednesday when officials announced that the level of radioactive particles being captured by monitoring stations in the Carlsbad area had decreased significantly and was close to normal.
Officials said further testing on the 13 workers who were at the plant at the time of the leak shows they aren’t likely to experience any serious health effects.
Janway told the audience of several dozen people at the town hall meeting that the systems at the plant worked, with filters capturing most of the radiation that escaped from the underground dump. Still, he said the investigation needs to be swift and efficient.
“The longer it takes to get to the bottom of this incident, the more damaging it is to Carlsbad and this project,” Janway said.
David Klaus, the DOE’s deputy undersecretary for management and performance, said the question is not whether the underground nuclear waste dump will reopen but when.
Klaus drew a round of applause from the crowd when he said there’s no question the plant will continue, at some point, with its mission to help the nation clean up waste from decades of nuclear defence projects.
DOE officials said work is ongoing to get air-monitoring equipment underground that will pave the way for specially trained crews to enter. They plan to make their way to two storage areas known as Panel 6 and Panel 7 to determine what might have happened.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich said they met with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and other federal officials, including those at the Environmental Protection Agency, and were given assurances that progress was being made at the site.
On a conference call late Thursday, DOE officials said they are planning to send a probe into the facility as early as Friday. But Jose Franco, manager of the DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office, said the timing of cleanup, and the resources and costs involved, won’t be known until crews can actually enter.
“I want to assure you that we are working diligently to address your questions and concerns,” Franco told the community in a letter. “We have not faced this kind of challenge in our 15-year history of waste operations, but I have the utmost confidence in the recovery team.”
The repository stopped taking shipments after a truck hauling salt through the facility’s tunnels caught fire Feb. 5. Several workers were treated for smoke inhalation.
Nine days later, sensors alerted officials to a release of radiation. Monitors as far as half a mile away later detected elevated levels of plutonium and americium in the air.
The DOE, the EPA and the repository’s managers have all said there’s no public health threat. But watchdog groups have questioned whether officials are holding back information related to the leak.
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