‘Slightly elevated’ levels of radiation reported near New Mexico plant

BY Robert Pursell  February 25, 2014 at 4:54 PM EDT
Photo of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant by the Department of Energy

Photo of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant by the Department of Energy

Ten days after a radiation leak was confirmed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad, N.M., the U.S. Department of Energy said in a report released Monday that an elevation in the level of airborne radiation in the surrounding areas has been detected.

“These concentrations remain well below a level of public or environmental hazard,” the department said in a news release.

Testing of areas around the site, which is a depository for radioactive waste, showed presence of excess radiation in the level of about a tenth of the amount of radiation someone would get from a chest x-ray, according to the Department’s release.

Alarms triggered on Feb. 14 at the Carlsbad waste site indicating elevated levels of airborne radiation led to the first ever response of its kind since the plant opened in 1999. Officials say the leak was first noticed in the underground plant shortly after 11 p.m. that night, and that luckily no workers were present at the time of the leak. Department spokespeople have insisted that the leak will ultimately be benign.

Joe Franco, who manages the Carlsbad office of the Department of Energy told Carlsbad residents: “There is no risk from this event that would be a hazard to you or your children.”

Despite his assurances, residents remain worried as officials continue to investigate the leak.

“I’m just a mom,” said local resident Anna Hovrud during a two hour meeting with officials from the Department of Energy and the waste site. “Is there a chance we could be exposed to radiation, that we are being poisoned somehow, while we are waiting for these samples?”

Despite it’s pristine 15-year track record, the site has had two accidents that have worried nearby residents in the past month. Prior to the leak, a truck carrying salt underground to the site caught fire on Feb. 5, closing down the plant and halting all shipments of nuclear waste to its premises.