'Wake-Up Call' as Workers Test Positive for Radiation After Nuclear Leak

Thirteen workers at an underground nuclear waste dump in New Mexico have tested positive for radiation following a leak of radioactive particles into the air earlier this month, the Department of Energy announced Wednesday.

“That is an unusually high number of workers to be exposed at any given time,” said Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy adviser to the secretary of energy under the Clinton administration, in an interview with Common Dreams. “This is very unusual and not supposed to happen. This is a wake-up call.”

The federally-owned Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in southeastern New Mexico holds plutonium-contaminated military waste, generated by nuclear weapons production across the United States, including Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico. It is the only underground nuclear waste dump in the country, storing radioactive material deep beneath the earth’s surface in salt formations. Officials say this facility was never supposed to leak.

The exposed workers were performing “above ground operations” on February 14th at the time the leak was detected, according to a statement by the DOE. “It is premature to speculate on the health effects of these preliminary results, or any treatment that may be needed,” reads the statement, which notes that many more tests are needed to determine the full extent of the workers’ exposure.

Findings that the workers have been contaminated contradict initial claims by WIPP managers that none of the 139 people working when the leak was detected had been exposed.

Furthermore, the number of workers contaminated could be even higher. “We are still reviewing staff assignments to determine if additional employees will need to be tested,” states the DOE.