Plutonium Release at U.S. Nuclear Facility: “We Don’t Know What Happened”

On February 20, 2014, AlertsUSA issued the following
Flash message to subscriber mobile devices:

Dept. of Energy confirms airborne release of Plutonium-239 & Americium-241 from underground nuke waste site near Carlsbad, NM. Cause still unknown. Monitoring.

On Thurs of this week AlertsUSA subscribers were notified via a text message to their mobile device that the Department of Energy had confirmed the airborne release of Plutonium-239 & Americium-241 from underground nuclear waste storage site near Carlsbad, NM.

Known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the facility is the nation’s only licensed deep geological nuclear waste repository. Located approximately 26 miles east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, the facility is the nation’s solution for permanent disposal of the Department of Energy’s cold war legacy transuranic waste that has been stored at 23 former nuclear-weapons-complex and generation sites located across 13 states.

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

The term transuranic refers to artificially made radioactive elements, such as neptunium, plutonium, americium, and others, that have atomic numbers higher than uranium in the periodic table of elements. None of these elements are stable and each of them decays radioactively into other elements.

The event began late on 2/15 when air monitors detected elevated radiation levels in the plant’s underground storage complex located more than 2000 feet beneath the surface. No employees were working underground at the time and those on the surface sheltered in place as a precaution.

Fast forward to this week. Operations at the facility have been halted and workers unable to reenter the underground storage complex due to high radiation levels. On Wednesday, tests by the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, a division of the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University, showed the presence americium and plutonium on at least one air filter retrieved from a sampling station located a half mile from the from the WIPP site.

It is highly disturbing that the Department of Energy waited several days before notifying New Mexico state officials about the airborne release…

According to Russell Hardy, director of the center, the radiation levels are the highest ever detected at or around the site. The Department of Energy states they are still not aware of the cause of the radiation release in underground complex as workers have been unable to get back inside, let alone how radiation managed to get to the surface, if this was a one-time event or an ongoing release.

DOE also indicates that operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant will not resume anytime soon and it could three or four weeks before workers can go underground to survey the possible source of the radiation release.

Despite the fact that everyone, at least publicly, is shrugging their shoulders as to the cause and severity, Department of Energy Carlsbad Field Office Manager Joe Franco assured the public in a news conference Thursday afternoon that the environment, personnel and public are not at risk.

It is interesting to note that despite this claim of no risk to the public, the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center is providing free lung and body scans to concerned adults living within a 100-mile radius of the WIPP facility.

AlertsUSA Threat Journal reminds readers that rule number one in crisis management is to control the message. As is always the case with public reporting on nuclear accidents, be it the Fukushima disaster in Japan, environmental contamination and health hazards from failing storage tanks at the Hanford site in Washington State or any of the dozens of other radiological incidents and unintentional releases occurring annually at nuclear facilities around the country, all formal statements invariably include the standard boilerplate statements indicating “no current threat to the public.”

Given all the unknowns, what is firmly established is that americium and plutonium have been released into the atmosphere. Both elements primarily emit alpha radiation rather than beta or gamma radiation. External exposure to alpha particles isn’t a major health risk because they have a low penetration depth and are usually stopped by skin. On the other hand, when alpha-emitters are breathed in or ingested, which is the primary concern with this incident, they are extremely hazardous, can irradiate internal organs and are capable of causing considerable chromosomal damage and cancer.

AlertsUSA continues to closely monitor the situation at the WIPP facility and will issue additional alert messages to subscriber mobile devices as events warrant.



Considering the extreme danger posed by the radioactive material being stored at the WIPP site, as well as the length of time necessary for this danger to abate, there are plans to construct an elaborate system of markers on the surface to deter inadvertent human intrusion for the next ten thousand years. This poses significant challenges in terms of pictorial communications, languages, materials and more. In the end, the question is how to communicate a message (HAZARD / DANGER) thousands of years into the future?

Since the early 1980s, the Department of Energy has been working with linguists, archeologists, anthropologists, science fiction writers, and futurists to develop just such a warning system for the WIPP facility. The current plan calls for a perimeter of 25-foot tall granite pillars built in a four-mile square. The pillars will surround an earthen wall measuring 33 feet tall and 100 feet wide. Enclosed within the wall will be another 16 granite pillars. At the center, directly above the waste site, will sit a roofless, 15-foot (4.6 m) granite room with panels providing more information. Additionally, warning information will be etched into the granite slabs and pillars.


WIPP PIC Overview

WIPP Passive Institutional Controls

This information will be recorded in the six official languages of the United Nations (English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic) as well as the Native American Navajo language. Additional space will be provided for translation into future languages. Pictograms are also being considered. Complete details about the plant will not be stored on site, but distributed to archives and libraries around the world. The finalized plan is expected to be submitted to the U.S. Government by 2028.

You can read more about this fascinating aspect of the nuclear waste disposal problem in two documents from Sandia National Laboratory:

1.  Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent
     Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

2.  Introduction to WIPP Passive Institutional Controls (PDF) (2012)