New Mexico radiation leak raises concerns

By By The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The radiation

exposure of at least 13 workers at a nuclear dump in a New Mexico salt

bed more than

2,000 feet below the ground has brought new attention to the

nation's long struggle to find places to dispose of tons of Cold

War-era waste.

The above-ground radiation release that

exposed the workers during a night shift two weeks ago shut down the

facility as authorities

investigate the cause and attempt to determine the health effects

on the employees. The mishap has also raised questions about

a cornerstone of the Department of Energy's $5-billion-a-year

program for cleaning up waste scattered across the country from

decades of nuclear-bomb making.

With operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot

Plant on hold, so are all shipments, including the last of nearly 4,000


of toxic waste that Los Alamos National Laboratory has been

ordered to remove from its campus by the end of June. Other waste

from labs in Idaho, Illinois and South Carolina is also without a

home while operations are halted.

The dilemma about what to do with the nuclear waste is highly politicized.

The government spent an estimated $15 billion on a proposed nuclear waste dump at Nevada's Yucca Mountain that has not been

completed. The Yucca site is fiercely opposed by Nevada lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

By contrast, New Mexico's congressional

delegation has largely supported the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which

has been accepting

waste since 1999 and employs about 650 people. The site is limited

by law to plutonium waste from making weapons, but experts

say salt beds at the site may be suitable for radioactive waste

from commercial reactors.

Many scientists consider the unique geology

of the location to be ideal for disposing of tainted materials like

tools, gloves,

glasses and protective suits. Over decades, with pressure from the

ground above, the salt deposits settle around the containers

and entomb them.

Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert at the watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists, said the accident could curb enthusiasm

on Capitol Hill for the underground site.

"I think from a political standpoint this is going to put a damper on some of the more ambitious expansion plans," he said.

"The narrative is that facility is super-safe. Now that they've had a serious incident, that's no longer valid."

Officials said they don't yet know what doses of radioactive material the workers absorbed, and that it's too soon to speculate

on what the health effects might be.

Tests showed traces of the element americium. Once in the body, americium tends to concentrate in the bone, liver and muscles.

It can stay in the body for decades and continue to expose surrounding tissues to radiation, increasing a person's chance

of developing cancer.

On Feb. 5, the mine was shut and six workers

were sent to the hospital for treatment of smoke inhalation after a

truck hauling

salt caught fire. Nine days later, a radiation alert activated in

the area where newly arrived waste was being stored. Preliminary

tests show 13 workers suffered some radiation exposure, and

monitors as far as half a mile away have since detected elevated

levels of plutonium and americium in the air. Ground and water

samples are being analyzed.

Officials said they're confident the

incidents are unrelated.