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Radiation Leaks Worry U.S./Mexico Border Residents

March 24th 2014

Serious problems at a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico have caught the eyes of the press and government officials in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

The current round of troubles began February 5 at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico, when six workers were briefly hospitalized for smoke inhalation after a truck caught fire. A Valentine’s Day radiation leak then released plutonium and americium, resulting in exposures to at least 17 workers. An undetermined quantity of toxic chemicals also leaked.

Since February 14, additional radiation releases connected to the original one have been reported, even as more workers are still awaiting test results for possible radiation exposure during the first event.
Although Ciudad Juarez is located nearly 200 miles from WIPP, city officials expect to meet with U.S. government representatives on March 26 or 27 to discuss ongoing issues from the February 14 incident.

A story in El Diario newspaper said that Ciudad Juarez (and neighboring El Paso and Las Cruces) were well within a transnational evacuation zone in the event of a nuclear disaster.

While WIPP spokespersons say that the radiation releases have been minimal and pose no danger to public health, Mexican officials are anxious to hear the message in person.

“Next week, people from the EPA and the U.S. DOE are going to come with first-hand information to guarantee that no risks exist,” said Fernando Motta Allen, director of Ciudad Juarez’s civil protection department.

Alejandro Gloria, chief of Ciudad Juarez’s municipal ecology department, said air quality monitors in the Mexican border city did not detect the presence of possible WIPP-related contaminants after the February 14 incident.

“Everything is fine,” Gloria assured. “There are no plutonium or strange particulates that have been detected inside the filters.”

Recently, however, the Ciudad Juarez daily Norte replanted long-standing local concerns over the technical efficiency of the city’s five air quality monitors. Civil Protection’s Fernando Motta later clarified that Ciudad Juarez has two radiation detection devices, but he acknowledged that the city had no specialists to operate them. Nonetheless, he added, the equipment is easy to use and comes with a complete instruction manual.

Opened in 1999 after years of protests and litigation by environmentalists, WIPP is carved out of underground salt beds where low-level, or transuranic waste, from Cold War nuclear weapons programs is shipped for permanent burial. Transported from different sites across the United States, the disposed items contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements include clothing, tools, rags, soil and other materials, according to the DOE.

By 2011, WIPP had handled 10,000 shipments of transuranic waste. A private contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, operates the underground repository for the federal government.

Despite U.S. and Mexican government reports of little or no radioactive contamination from the WIPP leak, public doubts about the gravity of the February 14 incident persist due to incomplete contaminant data reporting, the slowness in getting all the potentially exposed workers tested and informed, spotty or contradictory statements by regulatory officials, and uncertainties over the origin of the radiation leak and how far an area it has impacted.

For the first time since last month’s incident, a group of trained workers is expected to enter the underground repository next week in order to pinpoint the origin of the leak.

Questions stand as to the health effects of the radiation on WIPP workers and their families, the scope of the decontamination process that will be required, and the overall management of WIPP.

In mid-March, Farok Sharif was sacked as head of Nuclear Waste Partnership and Bob McQuinn named the new company president and WIPP project manager.

Mexican whistle-blower Bernardo Salas Mar, a former employee of the Laguna Verde nuclear power plant in Veracruz, said important bits of information need to be confirmed about the WIPP radiation release like the wind patterns at the time of the incident and the possible geographic scope of the spread of contaminants.

“The answer to these questions will lend knowledge to the damage that could have been caused,” Salas said. “After (radiation) ingestion or incorporation into the human organism, 10 or 15 years or more pass before the appearance of some kind of cancer.”

If plutonium and americium were indeed released into the larger environment, “the surrounding population should take precautions in order to avoid exposure to these contaminants,” he added.

The nuclear industry veteran suggested that Mexico’s Foreign Ministry review international treaties to ensure that all precautionary measures are followed in terms of cross-border notifications and actions.

According to Gloria, the WIPP crisis could lead to a review of nuclear safeguards in the greater border region. The Ciudad Juarez official said he was looking at geologic stability and the possible effects of the WIPP site on groundwater as issues that could be reexamined by the Mexican Congress and Chihuahua State Legislature.

Back in the 1990s, Ciudad Juarez and U.S. environmentalists from the Rio Bravo Ecological Alliance took a stand against WIPP based partly on concerns that the underground storage facility would eventually contaminate the Pecos River Basin and the Rio Grande.

February’s events have refocused public attention on not only the safety of current operations at WIPP, but plans to expand and streamline the depository’s storage capacity and even accept high-level waste from commercial operations .

In light of the recent troubles, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) announced March 21 that it was withdrawing a pending draft permit modification for the WIPP site that contemplated additional underground storage panels and other changes. State Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said his department, as well as the public, needed more information about the radiation release.

“Once NMED has all of our questions answered, we will proceed with consideration of a revised draft Permit.” Flynn said.

On February 28, representatives of 30 New Mexico citizen groups wrote to Flynn requesting that the Martinez administration cabinet official take precisely the action he did three weeks later.

“Once the radiation leak investigation and recovery occur, we would urge NMED to re-evaluate the draft permit in light of what is learned and make needed changes to protect public health and the environment before issuing a new draft permit for public review and comment,” the groups urged.

Signing on to the letter, among others, were representatives of Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, Laguna and Acoma Coalition for Safe Environment, New Mexico Environmental Law Center, Southwest Research and Information Center, Post-1971 Uranium Workers Committee, Albuquerque Mennonite Church, Concerned Citizens of Wagon Mound and Mora County, and Alliance for Environmental Strategies.

With WIPP temporarily closed to new shipments, U.S. officials are negotiating the shipment of nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to another storage site in Andrews County, Texas.
As the spring fire season rapidly approaches, New Mexico leaders maintain that the transfer of nuclear waste from Los Alamos is an urgent necessity. A 2011 conflagration singed the outskirts of lab property.

“Removing waste from the mesa in Los Alamos is critical to ensure safety in the greater Los Alamos community. The state’s June 2014 deadline was firm and non-negotiable…,” New Mexico Senator Tom Udall said in a statement.

In the Land of Enchantment, WIPP promises to be a hot topic in the coming days.

On Tuesday, March 25, WIPP representatives are scheduled to give a 7 pm presentation to the Artesia City Council. For their part, WIPP critics are cranking up the activism. A participant of a March 18 public meeting at the Southwest Organizing Project offices in Albuquerque described a “standing room only” turn-out.

Other upcoming updates are scheduled for the Albuquerque Center for Peace and Justice on Thursday, March 27, from 6 pm to 8 pm, and the Santa Fe Main Public Library on Monday, March 31, from 6 pm to 7:30 pm. The Albuquerque and Santa Fe community meetings are sponsored by the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, Southwest Research and Information Center, Citizens for Alternatives to Radio Dumping and Nuclear Watch New Mexico.

Dr. Mariana Chew, environmental engineer and longtime environmental activist in the Paso del Norte region, contended that a cross-border, information-credibility gap existed with regards to WIPP.

“The same thing always happens. It happened with Asarco (ex-El Paso smelter) and other environmental disasters that weren’t made known to the public,” Chew was quoted in the daily Norte. “Given the history, this radiation shouldn’t be taken lightly. Whenever something happens, that’s when you hear about it.”

Kent Paterson edits Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Border Studies at New Mexico State University. 


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