2014-02-17 03:01 AM
CARLSBAD, New Mexico (AP) -- Officials monitoring the presence of airborne radiation at the underground site in southeastern New Mexico where the U.S. government seals away its low-grade nuclear waste said that surface tests have shown no danger to people or the environment.
Samples were taken at several sites around the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant after an air monitor detected radiation on the underground levels of the facility around 11:30 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy said in a news release. A fire at the site earlier this month prompted an evacuation.
"Monitors at the WIPP boundary have confirmed there is no danger to human health or the environment," the department said late Saturday night. "No contamination has been found on any equipment, personnel, or facilities."
No workers were underground at the time, and no contamination, injuries or damage have been reported.
Energy Department spokesman Roger Nelson said that the 139 workers above ground at the site near Carlsbad were told Saturday to stay where they were as a precaution. None of them tested positive for contamination, Nelson said.
The surface samples show no contamination has been detected, implying the leak was "not significant," he said.
Nelson says the cause of the leak is not known yet. The devices that continuously monitor the air underground reached a threshold level that automatically switches the ventilation system into a filtered mode. He says the monitors have been triggered in the past by radon fluctuations.
WIPP stores waste that emits alpha and beta radiation, which is in particulate form, so the risk is of inhalation not penetration, he said.
No one has been underground, and Nelson said he didn't know when that would happen.
"We are going to take measurements and make sure we understand it" before sending in a team, he said.
WIPP is America's first and only deep geological nuclear waste repository. It takes plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other federal nuclear projects.