WIPP Update Feb 27 2014 – 13 Employees Contaminated

WIPP Update Feb 27 2014 – 13 Employees Contaminated

I’ll remind us all that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site is NOT a National Security site. It is a fancy landfill. There are really no secret programs there to protect. Maybe there are some secret parts buried there, but they have long-since been crushed. There is no reason to withhold news. The waste streams are well known and exactly where they are emplaced in WIPP is also well known. When the public gets news from WIPP officials, we deserve to have our questions answered clearly with all the important facts included.

Our best wishes go out to the employees.

Here’s the February 26, 2014 letter from the U.S. Department of Energy – Carlsbad Field Office, which provides oversight of the private contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC, that currently manages and operates WIPP. Unfortunately, this letter raises many questions. Below are each of the paragraphs of the letter, followed by my questions and comments.

First Paragraph –

This morning (February 26), the 13 Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) employees that were on site the evening of February 14 were notified that they have tested positive for radiological contamination. Employees were notified within about 12 hours of the receipt of preliminary sample results.

Ok, “the 13 Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) employees that were on site the evening of February 14,” sounds like there were only 13 employees at WIPP on Feb 14. But the February 15, 2014, 9:17 PM WIPP press release states, “All non-essential employees were off-site by 5:30 PM MST.” The February 15, 2014, 9:17 PM WIPP press release also states, “No contamination has been found on any equipment, personnel, or facilities.” I guess we are to read this as, “No contamination has been found ON any personnel.”

Questions raised –

How many employees were onsite when?

Were the 13 contaminated employees essential or non-essential?

Were the non-essential employees (how many?) that left by 5:30 bioassayed?

How does an employee inhale rads and not have any on them?


Second Paragraph –

At the time of the event, these employees were performing above ground operations, and federal oversight duties at the WIPP facility. Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC, the site contractor, requested that all workers on site the night of the event submit follow-up bioassay samples as they were considered more likely to have indications of potential exposure. Additional samples will be collected from these employees in the weeks ahead in order to perform complete analyses.

Questions raised –

When did Nuclear Waste Partnership, LLC request the bioassay samples from the night workers?

What made them “more-likely” to be exposed? What exactly were they doing?

Were the non-essential employees (how many?) that left by 5:30 bioassayed? When was this request made?


Third Paragraph –

It is premature to speculate on the health effects of these preliminary results, or any treatment that may be needed. However, on-site sampling and surveys and environmental monitoring, to date, continue to support National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC) modeling, which indicates that airborne contamination was likely at very low levels.

Questions raised –

Where is the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC) modeling? The public must be allowed to read any and all reference documents. And by the way, NARAC is located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which is a Department of Energy site. 


Fourth Paragraph –

The material for this release event is transuranic radionuclides. The release material was predominantly americium-241, material which is consistent with the waste disposed of at the WIPP. This is a radionuclide used in consumer smoke detectors and a contaminant in nuclear weapons manufacturing.

Questions raised –

Really? Smoke detectors? Here’s from the EPA

As long as the radiation source stays in the detector, exposures would be negligible (less than about 1/100 of a millirem per year), since alpha particles cannot travel very far or penetrate even a single sheet of paper, and the gamma rays emitted by americium are relatively weak. If the source were removed, it would be very easy for a small child to swallow, but even then exposures would be very low because the source would pass through the body fairly rapidly (by contrast, the same amount of americium in a loose powdered form would give a significant dose if swallowed or inhaled). Still, its not a good idea to separate the source from the detector apparatus.

All the americium at WIPP is the byproduct of Cold War nuclear weapons production. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) explains the health effects of americium.

The radiation from americium is the primary cause of adverse health effects from absorbed americium. Upon entering the body by any route of exposure, americium moves relatively rapidly through the body and is deposited on the surfaces of the bones where it remains for a long time. As americium undergoes radioactive decay in the bone, alpha particles collide with nearby cell matter and give all of their energy to this cell matter. The gamma rays released by decaying americium can travel much farther before hitting cellular material, and many of these gamma rays leave the body without hitting or damaging any cell matter. The dose from this alpha and gamma radiation can cause changes in the genetic material of these cells that could result in health effects such as bone cancers.


Fifth Paragraph – Here it states that inhalation did employees did occur.

Determining employee dose typically involves multiple sample analyses to determine employee’s radionuclide excretion rate over time. This allows the lab to estimate the employee’s accumulated internal dose. The time this process takes depends largely on the solubility of the inhaled particulate, with less water-soluble radioactive materials requiring more samples and time to accurately estimate the dose. Follow-up urine samples may require about three or more weeks to accurately predict dose.


Sixth Paragraph –

We are now focusing our sampling program on employees with work assignments that may have placed them at greater risk, including those on shift February 15. We are still reviewing staff assignments to determine if additional employees will need to be tested. However, employees who feel they were assigned positions or functions that placed them at risk will be included in follow-up bioassay monitoring at their request.

Questions raised –

How many employees were working on the 15th? Were they wearing safety protection?

What is the criterion “to determine if additional employees will need to be tested”?


Seventh Paragraph –

There is no risk to family or friends of these employees. As we learn more information, we will continue to share. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact 1-800-336-9477. Thank you.

Questions raised –

What is the current status at the site?

Are employees working there now?

Are they wearing protective gear?


There apparently is a Press Conference today (Feb27 2014) at 3pm MST.

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