In my last diary I reported on the release of plutonium and other actinides from the deep geological burial site near Carlsbad, New Mexico that stores high level waste from nuclear weapons production.
Today the Department of Energy [DOE] reported that 13 workers were internally contaminated while working above ground at the facility when the leak occurred. DOE admits it has no clue how high the releases were or how much of an internal dose these 13 workers received, but they do suspect it's mostly from americium-241, with a healthy serving of plutonium on the side.
Just as we are informed it will be weeks before anyone can go down to find out what happened and how bad the situation is in the underground salt chambers, it will also be weeks before these workers will know anything other than the fact that their bodies are contaminated with transuranic nuclear waste they breathed in. Moreover, DOE now suspects more WIPP employees may have suffered similar internal contamination. They're going through records of staff assignments now to see if anybody else needs to be tested, but they're willing to go ahead and test any employee who requests a bioassay.
One slightly odd tidbit also was reported when Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership, suggested at the public meeting Monday in Carlsbad that possible scenarios about the cause of the container leak included not just a collapsed ceiling in one of the storage rooms, but also possibly a forklift puncturing a canister. Which, just so you know, would have been quite difficult considering there were no humans in the mine when the leak is reported to have occurred.
All underground work was halted and all workers evacuated from the mines on February 7th, when a salt truck caught fire in the north tunnels. No one has been in the underground since (they say), and the leak occurred a week later on February 14th. Did they leave a forklift operator behind when they evacuated? Do their forklifts operate themselves? Or did the leak actually occur on the same day as the truck fire and they just didn't notice it for a week because they turned off the radiation monitors while flushing air in the 16-square mile salt mine half a mile underground to clear the smoke?
Honestly, it's mind-boggling that these folks can't even manage to bury the worst of their worst nuclear filth - all neatly pre-sorted and packaged in pristine white-painted 55-gallon drums shrink-wrapped onto sturdy pallets ready to be stacked and forgotten forever - without messing things up so thoroughly that they can't even craft a good cover story.
The serious 'reach' involved in suggesting it might have been an errant fork lift operator instead of a ceiling collapse does make a certain kind of sense if you're DOE/WIPP, and you think you can somehow convince people there are disgruntled ghosts down in the empty mine maliciously puncturing barrels of high level nuclear waste with heavy machinery when nobody's down there to stop them. They can always apologize for "Operator Error" and/or call a priest or shaman to exorcise ghosts who drive fork lifts, promise it'll never happen again.
Problem with that is the fact that if it's not a desperate and dying left-behind worker trying to get their attention, or a ghost (or a robotic forklift that runs itself), they've got a serious problem with their start date on this release. They'll need to do some serious accounting on ventilation activities as well as leak monitoring during the entire prior week, and they'll most likely end up with a whole lot more than 13 contaminated workers. Because there were lots of people working topside during that week - they were only evacuated after the monitor alarm sounded on the 14th and after they'd all been cleared for external contamination.
On the other hand, explaining how and why you wasted a whole hell of a lot of time and money - Wiki's got a fine historical overview - on a supposedly secure for 10,000 years disposal site that didn't even manage to operate 15 full years before collapsing and spewing, would make them look like complete idiots as well as possibly criminal fools.
Either way, doesn't look good.