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The nation’s only deep underground depository of nuclear waste remains closed today and more workers there will be tested, following a still-unexplained Valentine’s Day leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
At least 13 workers were exposed to radiation, and above-ground monitors at the site have detected elevated levels of radioactivity.
Jack Volpato, a county commissioner in Carlsbad, says “everybody’s concerned” in his community about the leak. But he insists that the incident proves the safety systems work.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I’m Meghna Chakrabarti.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I’m Jeremy Hobson. It’s HERE AND NOW. And in a few minutes what it’s like inside one of the nuclear reactions in Fukushima, Japan three years, almost after the tsunami and earthquake and nuclear meltdown there.
CHAKRABARTI: But first, more workers at the only deep underground depository of nuclear waste in the U.S. are being tested for radiation exposure. And 13 other workers have already tested positive after a still-unexplained Valentine’s Day radiation leak at the site. It’s a first ever there.
The plant, known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Projection, or WIPP, is an underground salt mine near Carlsbad, New Mexico. Since 1999, the mine has stored items such as contaminated gloves, tools and other trash from the research and production of nuclear weapons. It was shut down after the leak and remains closed, but low levels of radiation have been found above the ground near the mine.
Jack Volpato is a county commissioner from Eddy County in New Mexico. He joins us from NPR in Washington, where he’s attending a meeting of the Energy Communities Alliance. Mr. Volpato, welcome to the program.
COMMISSIONER JACK VOLPATO: Thank you for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, what are you hearing from your constituents in New Mexico about this leak? People have got to be concerned about it.
VOLPATO: Well, of course, the first thing is concern and safety, and that’s very important. We want to make sure that, you know, there is a risk mitigation and that people are not unduly exposed and that we explain the level of contamination and what happens as best, as soon as we get the information that is relayed to us.
CHAKRABARTI: Now the site, as we’ve mentioned, has been run since 1999 by private contractors. Does the fact that this leak occurred raise concerns about the efficacy of safety systems there?
VOLPATO: Well, I think we have to have a review of safety systems. To be honest, really, the safety systems worked as they were intended. However, we didn’t get the end result that we were expecting. Something else has happened, and that needs to be investigated.
Right now we’re talking with DOE, and they have a plan to remove the HEPA filters, which are filtering everything, and analyze them and replace them and then send down some probes to check it to preclude a planned manned entry into the mine.
CHAKRABARTI: Now I’m curious, though, what you think about the fact that the day after the leak, the workers who are now being tested were actually sent in because nobody even knew that there was a leak. I mean, it does seem that, you know, as you’re saying, there does need to be some review of safety systems because perhaps these workers should not even have been sent in.
VOLPATO: Well these workers were actually topside workers that were exposed. They were up on top, that tested positive, the 13. However, we, you know, certainly we need to test everybody, and we’re doing further testing to make sure we know the level of exposure and who it is. From what I understand, the bioassays will come back. It’ll take about three weeks. But according to the radiation that – the amount that we have detected through the continuous air monitors or cam monitors and also the on-topside monitors, that the level is fairly low.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. Now, you know, this is the only facility of its kind in the United States, and anything that stores nuclear radiation is going to carry some risks. But you grew up in Carlsbad. Can you tell us what having this facility there has meant for the community overall?
VOLPATO: It has been a blessing and a boon to the community. When I first – you know, when I was growing up there, it was a blue-collar town and an agricultural town. WIPP brought a perspective of white-collar business and jobs and that sort of a community, and it really helped our academic institutions there. And they’ve been a key, essential part of the community and transforming the community into what it is now.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I wonder, though, because even though this transformation has happened, and I hear you when you say that having the WIPP facility there has brought a lot of good jobs, I mean, I see that Don Hancock of the watchdog group the Southwest Research and Information Center says WIPP has failed in its mission, and he said what’s going on there now is, quote, “distracted nuclear waste disposal.”
The contractor denies that. But I’m wondering, is the community now wondering if the risk of having the facility is outweighing the benefits it may have brought over the past 15 years?
VOLPATO: I’m not hearing that yet at any of the town halls. You know, really the bottom line is – are people are saying is it safe? Is the contamination going to reach Carlsbad? And the answers to those are there is not going to be any contamination at this point anywhere near Carlsbad. It’s still relegated to the 16 square miles of federated – withdrawn land. It hasn’t gone anywhere else other than there or to the workers.
And so I think, you know, being that geologically – or geographically it’s about 30 miles as the crow flies to it between Carlsbad and the site, the risk of it transferring to the town is very low, and I think people are understanding, and we’ve lived with this risk for a long time and have done very well. We, you know, we had a sterling safety record, never had a leak or an accident to this point. So it’s disconcerting to us. We’re trying to work the problem, and we’re trying to get answers out.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Jack Volpato is a county commissioner from Eddy County in New Mexico. Thank you so much for joining us today.
VOLPATO: Well, thank you for having me.
Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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