It has been almost two weeks since a continuous air monitor alarmed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Though no one was hurt and no one is likely to be harmed in the future, an irregular drip of information interrupted by periods of silence has gradually painted a picture of a serious event worthy of interest.
The first news releases (1, 2, and 3) were reassuring; there was no one in the facility at the time of the air monitoring alarm, employees who were on site were directed to shelter in place, there were no reports of personnel contamination, and the possibility of any release off site had been minimized because the ventilation system immediately shifted to using a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtering system upon receipt of the alarm.
Initial site surveys showed that there were no immediately detectable levels of contamination. The press releases stated that the installed air monitors and the ventilation filter system continue to operate as designed.
After press release #3, the Joint Information Center, which was established to provide the public and the press with timely information about the event, was closed down. There was no additional information available to share.
Unfortunately, the people crafting and approving the initial press releases did not take the opportunity provided to clearly state that initial air, surface and personnel surveys for contamination are good enough to identify levels that may cause health concerns, but they do not provide the final numbers. One of the unique characteristics of radioactive material is that it is detectable to very tiny levels using sophisticated chemical separation and lengthy counting intervals.
On February 19, five days after the initial alarm, the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC) announced that they had completed their analysis of the first air filter removed from a monitoring station after the accident. Their analysis showed that a monitor located 0.6 miles away from the exhaust stack for the mine had captured a measurable quantity of americium and plutonium. The levels reported were very low, 0.64 Bq of Am-241 and 0.046 Bq of Pu-239/240. At the same time, the CEMRC stated that their analysis of the filter at an air monitoring station located about 12 miles away from the facility showed no radioactive particulate contamination.
After such a lengthy period of silence and reassurance, that report of measured contamination outside of the facility startled enough people to encourage the major of Carlsbad to hold a town meeting. He invited the primary experts from the facility operating contractor, the independent monitoring organization and the federal agency responsible for the waste and for operating WIPP. That town hall meeting took place on Monday, Feb 23. It was streamed online; the archived town meeting is available to be viewed by the world.
The people at the meeting asked some good, logical questions about the filtration system, the implications of the fact that levels were detectable outside of the facility, and the meaning of all of the confusing numbers in terms of actual risk. The experts responded with useful information when they had it available, but they also clearly stated when they had no additional information to provide. They were unable to provide any information about the cause of the initial release; the site remains closed while detailed reentry procedures are being written, reviewed and approved.
Dr. Russell Hardy, the director at the CEMRC, provided a clear explanation about the time it takes to digest a filter sample. He wryly expressed a little frustration about the high level of expectations created by television crime scene investigator dramas that teach the public that there are magical analysis devices that take almost no time at all to provide unique identifying information. He carefully described the efforts required to remove normally occurring concentrations of radioactive material from sample results.
Following the town meeting, it appeared that most of the attendees were satisfied with the responses they had received.
On Feb 26, after several more days with little or no change in the situation, Jose Franco, the DOE Carlsbad field office manager, issued a letter addressed to his local community and a press release that stated that 13 employees who were on the WIPP site when continuous air monitor alarmed had all tested positive for radiological contamination. Neither the letter nor the statement provided any indication of the level of the internal contamination.
Following the release of those written communications, Mr. Franco scheduled a press conference. He brought Dr. Russell Hardy of the CEMRC and Mr. Farok Sharif, the President of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates WIPP to answer questions.
He should have invited an expert on the health effects of internal radiation exposure; she might have been better able to field the questions from an increasingly interested national press corps. The most recent conference attracted the Associated Press, the Wall St. Journal and the New York Times.
Again, there were no numbers or context provided that indicated the level of internal exposure for the employees. Mr. Sharif stated that it was too early to tell if the levels measured were dangerous other than to indicate that, so far, his medical experts have advised that chelation will probably not be recommended because it carries higher risks than the possible radiation dose. He also told the press that the contaminated individuals would be carefully monitored and would need to provide additional samples over time.
Without numbers, it is not possible to determine if there is any cause for concern, but for people who believe that the standard must be zero internal exposure, the danger level has already been exceeded. Based on all of the other monitoring numbers provided, it seems highly unlikely that anyone outside of the mine at the time that the air monitor alarmed could have ingested or inhaled a significant amount of radioactive material.
No one knows what caused the release, although Sharif provided information about postulated events like wall or roof collapses that were analyzed in the site safety analysis report because they could damage a waste package.
The statements and answers provided at the press conference were aimed at assuring the press that the people in charge were taking the event very seriously and were proceeding with an abundance of caution. The responses indicated a high level of uncertainty about the length of time that may be required before the facility can be restored to full operational status.
All of the indications point to the fact that this is going to be a very expensive “puff” that will require a painstaking, labor-intensive recovery effort. No one can predict at this point how long the facility will be closed or what additional restrictions might be imposed before it can again begin accepting packages from other sites where defense-related clean up is in progress.