Thirteen Workers Exposed to Radiation at New Mexico Waste Dump

A worker drives an electric cart past air monitoring equipment inside a storage room of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M.Anonymous / AP file

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It’s too early to tell if 13 nuclear waste plant workers who tested positive for radiation exposure in New Mexico face long-term health risks, plant officials said Thursday.

The workers were notified on Wednesday that tests showed low levels of americium-241 in their bodies. That is one of the radioactive particles emitted from the sprawling waste repository located 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico.

On Thursday, officials from the U.S. Department of Energy and the contractor that runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation's first deep underground nuclear facility, provided some details on the leak that occurred on Valentine’s Day.

The 13 workers were above ground doing federal-mandated oversight at the time a radiation detector went off the night of Feb. 14, said Joe Franco, the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office manager.

WIPP officials have said no employees were underground when the leak was detective.

A worker drives an electric cart past air monitoring equipment inside a storage room of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M.Anonymous / AP file

Everyone at the plant at the time was checked for contamination before they were allowed to leave, a news release said. Biological samples were also taken, and subsequent analysis showed low levels of radioactive exposure, officials said.

On-site readings later showed that the workers were likely exposed by “airborne contamination.” Franco said.

The workers are now being monitored by specialists and providing fecal and urine samples to see whether the radiological agent is dissipating, the plant’s operator said Thursday.

It still wasn’t clear whether the contamination posed long term health risks to the workers or if they would need ongoing medical treatment.

“It is too early to make any conclusions about whether my employees are endangered,” said. Farok Sharif, Nuclear Waste Partnership president and project manager.

The deep underground waste dump has been shut down since the leak occurred.

The source of the leak has not yet been determined, but the DOE said a plan was in place to go back underground into the waste facility and systematically take readings and observations to determine what specifically happened on Feb. 14.

“Once the source of the contamination is found, we’ll lay out a plan on how to mitigate it,” Franco said.

Higher radiation levels have been detected in the air near the plant, but officials say the readings are not high enough to be considered a public health threat.

A HEPA filtration system designed to keep 99.7 percent of contamination from being released above ground worked, they insisted.

This is the first known accident since the dump began taking plutonium-contaminated waste from nuclear bomb building sites around the country 15 years ago, the Associated Press reported. A container of waste leaked, officials said, but they are not yet sure what caused the accident.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.