Sampling detects contamination at WIPP

November 6, 2014

By The Associated Press

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) – A pair of air samplers at the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository detected low levels of radioactive contamination after workers restarted one of the fans at the facility in southeastern New Mexico, officials said Thursday.

They confirmed the contamination was well below levels that would affect the environment or workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

"At no time were employees, the public or the environment at risk," the U.S. Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office said in a statement.

The fan, which is part of the underground ventilation and filtration system, was restarted in late October as part of the lengthy process of bringing the plant back online after a canister of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory leaked inside a storage room.

That radiological release in February contaminated 22 workers and forced closure of the plant.

Officials had expected some residual contamination in the adjacent ductwork and interior workings of the fan since it was running for two months following the incident.

As a precaution, workers took shelter inside buildings before restarting the fan last month and stayed in place for 30 minutes until it was determined to be safe.

Slightly elevated levels of airborne contamination were identified at an air sampler located at the end of the exhaust duct where filtered air exits the underground facility. Contamination was also detected by a second sampler about 60 yards away from the fan.

Officials said the results for the remaining samplers were either below the minimum detectable concentration or within the range normally observed at the site.

The Carlsbad Field Office said it would continue to monitor the air samplers to ensure there are no changes in the readings.

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