Radioactive Waste Plant in New Mexico Remains Closed

March 5, 2014 Updated: March 4, 2014

Over the Valentine’s Day weekend, an air-monitoring alarm went off at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) located 26 miles Southeast of Carlsbad, N.M., indicating a radiation leak from somewhere inside the waste repository, which was immediately cleared of all personnel. The plant will remain closed at least through mid-march.

“This is the first time that we have had a leak at the facility,” said Joe Franco, manager of the Carlsbad Field Office of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), to NBC News.

Additionally, reports from the DOE confirm that trace leaks of plutonium and americium have been detected in the air outside the facility. The confirmation came from the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center of the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University, located northwest of the WIPP. The center detected the trace amounts in an air filter sampling.

The WIPP, America’s only underground repository for nuclear waste, stores waste known as transuranic waste, which consists of used machinery, clothing, and additional matter that has been contaminated with plutonium and/or other radioactive substances.

The facility stores 3.2 million cubic feet of contaminated material in salt caverns 2,150 feet underground.

The leak, which was detected underground, did not affect any of the 139 employees working above ground at the site. No workers were in the underground facility when the leak occurred.

Officials at the site said that even though the leak has been plugged, the facility will remain closed at least through mid-March. The cause of the leak will not be determined until they are able to reenter the facility after the three-week closure period.

Officials at the DOE declared that radiation levels at the site were not high enough to threaten human health, according to NBC News.

“Any type of release outside of the facility or inside the facility is unacceptable and is disconcerting,” said Ryan Flynn, cabinet secretary at the New Mexico Environment Department, according to NBC News. “From the state’s perspective, one event is far too many.”