Over the past 26 years, the scientists and lab technicians at New Mexico State University’s Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center have been monitoring the air, soil, water and people residing in the area surrounding the Department of Energy Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Fortunately, with little to no variance in environmental conditions related to WIPP, it’s mostly been a routine endeavor. Except on the one-time occasion when it wasn’t.
In 2014, the WIPP facility, a deep geologic repository for defense-related nuclear waste, was suddenly shut down due to an underground fire Feb. 5. On Feb. 14, an unrelated underground radiation event occurred due to an improperly packaged drum that ruptured and released radioactive contamination into the underground WIPP ventilation system.
CEMRC personnel were the first to detect and notify the public and DOE about the release. Only small amounts of radioactive contamination escaped the WIPP site, located in southeastern New Mexico’s Chihuahuan desert some 28 miles from the city of Carlsbad. The level of radiation released was low and localized, posing no threat to the environment, workers or residents in the area.
“WIPP had been operating with no events for 15 years before the 2014 release,” said CEMRC Director Russell Hardy. “There had been some speculation that maybe our services weren’t needed, until the release. We provide the community a certain level of comfort in knowing that we will supply accurate and important information. It is why we are here.”
The facility provides free lung and whole body scans for WIPP workers and people over the age of 13 who reside within a 100-mile radius of the WIPP site through its Lie Down and Be Counted program, now in its 20th year. Thus far, nearly 1,500 people have been scanned, approximately 40 of them after the 2014 release, showing no cause for radiation-related health concerns.
“We can detect things down to the eighth and ninth decimal points – very tiny amounts,” said Hardy. In fact, the Lie Down and Be Counted scans can detect higher levels of cesium in people due to smoking and eating wild game, both of which are unrelated to the operation of WIPP.
CEMRC, part of NMSU’s College of Engineering, began monitoring in 1997, two years before the WIPP facility first accepted its first shipment of radioactive waste in 1999.
“We were the first and to date, only, nuclear facility to begin monitoring before operation began so that we could establish a baseline for comparison so that we would be able to discern any impact on the community,” Hardy said.
CEMRC monitoring revealed radiation contamination from a 1960s Cold War-era underground nuclear warhead test site some 5 miles away from the WIPP facility, which yielded minimal levels of radioactive levels that were much higher than those resulting from the 2014 release. CEMRC also detected a spike in radiation levels three days following the 2011 Fukishima Daiichi power plant meltdown following a tsunami in Japan. After about a month, Hardy says, Fukishima originated radiation was no longer detected.
“It took roughly three days to travel 10,000 miles,” said Hardy, noting that the fuel rods used by various nuclear facilities have their own, identifiable footprint which allows identification of the source. In the event of a release at the WIPP repository or anywhere else, the CEMRC monitoring equipment would be able to detect and identify its origination.
On a daily basis, CEMRC scientists collect and analyze samples from the environmental filters inside the WIPP repository. Twice a month, they collect and analyze samples from five air filters outside the facility. They also analyze the drinking water from the five local water municipalities: Carlsbad Sheep Draw and Double Eagle, Otis, Malaga, Hobbs and Loving. Surface water and sediment sampling is conducted at three reservoirs on the Pecos River which are heavily used for irrigation and recreation.
They are looking primarily for by-products of the nuclear fission process – plutonium, americium and cesium. They are also looking for heavy metals or salts that might also be included in the waste.
This work is conducted by CEMRC’s staff comprising radio chemists, environmental chemists and lab technicians. Led by Hardy, who became director in 2012, the group is supported by DOE funding that first came in 1991 and was renewed in 2015 with a $15 million contract.
Hardy, who is former president of New Mexico State University Carlsbad and has a background in business, admits, “I never had a chemistry class in my life. It was a pretty steep learning curve.” However, he adds, his expertise is in managing the facility and its grant and contract obligations.
The lifecycle of the WIPP repository, originally estimated to end in 2035, has now been extended to 2050, and, says Hardy, some expect it to go beyond that date.
Currently, the community is pursuing a new interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel that was slated to be stored at the Nevada Yucca Mountain site. That was halted under the Obama administration.
“There are 110 nuclear plants in the United States and 30 of them have closed but still have nuclear fuel on their premises with no place to go,” said Hardy. This past March, Carlsbad and Eddy, Hobbs and Lea counties applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license to develop a shallow, dry storage repository that will house waste encased in concrete and lead containers. The containers would have a 40-year life span, giving the federal government time to make decisions as to what should be done with the waste. The NRC has two years to review the proposal. If approved, an appeal will be made to Congress to fund the facility.
“So far, we’re the only one in the game,” said Hardy. “Something has got to be done. This solution will be a lot safer and less expensive. It would be another opportunity for CEMRC to perform independent environmental monitoring and communication to assure residents of their safety.”