A joint public meeting was held in Carlsbad NM today for the public to ask questions about the incident at WIPP. The meeting video is archived here.
DOE cited a release level at the meeting but did not specify if it was for just the underground area, both areas or just the above ground area.
DOE says 84 microcuries were released during the event. This converts to 3.108 MBq (megabecquerels) by a direct conversion using Wolfram Alpha.
There were extensive conversations at the meeting, attempting to explain the lengthy process undertaken to read monitoring post filters to determine isotope identification. While this is work that needs to be done to further confirm the nature of the release it is not the only available measure of said release. The fact that DOE gave the 84 microcuries release estimate shows why the excuse that they are unable to give the public any further data for at least 3 weeks falls short. DOE possesses a number of types of data that are available immediately and could be shared with the public to give an understanding of the situation. Continious Air Monitoring (CAMS) readings are available in real time from various locations around the WIPP site. After some contentious back and forth with the public about the how much radioactive contamination escaped the mine, DOE admitted that the HEPA filter system does not scrub .03% of the contamination out of the exhaust. They stopped short of admitting how much has made it out via the HEPA filter system. They also refused to comment on one citizen’s question about how much could potentially escape as that .03% in a much larger event. Taking the above activity reading of 84 microcuries and assuming it all to be underground activity, the amount that would have made it past the .03% rate of the HEPA filter would be 932.4 bq. There were some previous mentions that they thought there was a brief release to the environment before the HEPA filters took over. If this is the case, the release to the environment could be more.
The problem with these releases are that they are mostly plutonium, this is a serious inhalation hazard. From the EPA website.
“External exposure to plutonium poses very little health risk, since plutonium isotopes emit alpha radiation, and almost no beta or gamma radiation. In contrast, internal exposure to plutonium is an extremely serious health hazard. It generally stays in the body for decades, exposing organs and tissues to radiation, and increasing the risk of cancer. Plutonium is also a toxic metal, and may cause damage to the kidneys.”
“When inhaled, plutonium can pass into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, plutonium moves throughout the body and into the bones, liver, or other body organs. Plutonium that reaches body organs generally stays in the body for decades and continues to expose the surrounding tissue to radiation and thus may cause cancer.“
The Department of Energy took the potential plutonium exposure of workers at Idaho National Lab in 2011 quite seriously. The 16 workers involved received multiple health screenings. Two workers were found to have inhaled plutonium in that incident. These workers were in close proximity to the damaged material in the 2011 incident. Wind can move plutonium but it takes something with significant force like a blast to move it long distances.
DOE also gave a number of readings recently with reading dates. Some of these DOE filter readings were turned around within 6 days. DOE does not say who is doing their filter readings. CEMRC mentioned they have 3 monitoring stations outside the plant grounds. On Sunday they pulled the small filter out of the monitoring station 6/10ths of a mile from the site. Using an ambient air sampler they found 500 CPM on filter. This converted down to 42 DPS (disintigrations per second) gross activity for the fiilter. Once processed in the lab the filter sample showed .64 bq of americium. The plutonium findings for this sample can be found here.
DOE admitted they have over 100 filter samples, smears, water, soil, air and vegetation samples. They gave no results and no turn around time for these tests. They did not say if these results would be made public.
Some other more important points made at the meeting:
- A CAM (continuous air monitor) detected in underground mine, at panel 7 exhaust, high alpha & beta activity. The exhaust duct is near the entryway into panel 7. They did not give an actual number for the reading and did not explain why they are not releasing CAM readings to the public, these do not require any laboratory analysis.
- Panel 7 was the “active” open set of rooms being filled but no loading was going on at the time of the incident.
- Levels are consistently decreasing underground, samples are taken at hour intervals. None of these readings have been made public.
- There were no personnel in the mine at the time of the event. There were not any active loading activities underway when the incident happened so no barrels or casks were in transit in the mine. Currently only essential personnel are on site, all others are working in offices in Carlsbad.
- There is currently no timeline for the reentry attempt into the mine.
- Nobody has received one of the free body scans since the incident, A number of people have booked appointments. These free scans have been available since the facility began operation.
- Someone asked when and how the HEPA filters will be changed out. DOE only answered that they shut off one of the two trains while they exchange filters to prevent leaks to the outside. They admitted the filters were installed in 1999.
Some details about the February 5th fire:
- 86 people were in the mine during the fire.
- The distance between the fire and the active room was about 3000 feet
- Everyone was out in 37 minutes.
- 6 people had smoke inhalation, they were treated and released.
- Vents were shut down after evacuation to starve fire
- Mine rescue entered the mine to confirm fire was out and check conditions, some embers still there.
- A 2nd mine rescue team went in to make sure the fire was completely out. A small fire truck in the underground area with chemical fire extingishing went in to make sure fire was out. They did that and started one fan then the 2nd team came out. They established habitability (air clear, no fire) after fire.
- Fire investigation is ongoing. Accident investigators walked around entire mine after fire was confirmed out. The last day they entered was Feb 14.
The running theme in last night’s meeting was a lack of solid data from DOE. They repeatedly fell back on the filter processing excuse, ignoring already released readings, the admission of a total activity number and the known wide variety of other radiation data that is available right now but DOE refuses to make public, like CAMS data. It was a very sad state of affairs that even the community WIPP claims to partner with could not get those answers.
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