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Personnel Could Return to Atomic Burial Site Vacated After Leak

Crews may soon get orders to re-enter a nuclear-material burial site where airborne radioactivity was detected earlier this month, the New York Times reports.

Resuming operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant's underground storage area in New Mexico could enable analysts to locate the source of radioactive contaminants picked up by an automatic sensor on Feb. 14, after crews had left for the day, the Times said on Tuesday. Possible links to an earlier fire in the facility already have been discounted, according to the newspaper.

Administrators have still not indicated when they would instruct personnel to again descend into the subterranean complex. However, overseers and outside experts have downplayed the significance of radioactive materials identified above ground at the site, located less than 30 miles from Carlsbad, N.M.

Contaminants located at the surface were similar in composition to materials stored inside the facility. Operators, though, said the amounts were far below levels meriting a response under Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.

One independent specialist on Tuesday suggested Carlsbad residents had received no radiation exposure as a direct result of the incident.

Russell Hardy, an analyst with New Mexico State University's Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, compared the atmospheric impact of the additional contaminants to the amount that an eyedropper of water would increase an ocean's depth.

The head of the the site's managing contractor also minimized any environmental consequences.

"The numbers are so low, we need really sensitive pieces of equipment that can detect these low numbers," said Farok Sharif, president and project manager of the Nuclear Waste Partnership.

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