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Oversight Official Flags Higher Risks at New Mexico Nuclear Repository

A watchdog official said lax preparations at a New Mexico atomic-waste site suggest that two recent accidents easily could have caused more harm.

A vehicle fire and contaminant leak occurred within days of each other last month at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the first major safety lapses in the waste burial site's 15-year history, the wire service reported on Tuesday. In the latter incident, radioactive materials escaped into the air and affected 17 personnel.

"The internal contamination level of workers, although minor, was nevertheless greater than necessary," the Associated Press quoted Peter Winokur, chairman of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, as saying. The watchdog official assessed the incidents in response to a request from Senators Tom Udall (D) and Martin Heinrich (D), both of New Mexico.

"The local WIPP Emergency Operations Center was ineffective, and the DOE (Department of Energy) emergency center at headquarters in Washington, D.C., was never notified, as would have been appropriate," Winokur added.

The oversight figure said that "significant improvements in the safety strategy for the dump are warranted to address design basis accidents that lead to radiation releases."

Meanwhile, the two lawmakers on Tuesday said the Environmental Protection Agency would field its own radiation detectors to monitor air around the site and the nearby town of Carlsbad.

"EPA has made it clear that it does not believe that the radioactive releases from WIPP are a public health danger, and we fully expect these additional monitors will provide extra support to help ease any concerns that the public may have," the senators said in shared remarks.

Meanwhile, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina is still readying nuclear-arms waste for delivery to the New Mexico site, with an expectation that it will re-open, the Augusta Chronicle reported on Tuesday.

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