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Uptick in Carlsbad Radiation Said Unconnected to Waste Dump Incidents

Crews at Los Alamos National Laboratory repackage waste in 2011 for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. An Energy Department expert said a nuclear-waste storage facility in New Mexico was not necessarily the source of a radiation increase in the neighboring town of Carlsbad. Crews at Los Alamos National Laboratory repackage waste in 2011 for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. An Energy Department expert said a nuclear-waste storage facility in New Mexico was not necessarily the source of a radiation increase in the neighboring town of Carlsbad. (U.S. Energy Department photo)

A U.S. Energy Department expert said a troubled New Mexico nuclear-waste site is not a clear culprit of boosts in nearby radiation.

Department equipment on the outskirts of Carlsbad, N.M., on March 4 detected radioactivity more than four times greater than the amount picked up by the system two weeks earlier, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reports. The level increased to 7.1 disintegrations per minute after a vehicle caught fire and contaminants escaped in separate February incidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located less than 30 miles away.

Roger Nelson, head scientist for the Energy Department's Carlsbad Field Office, said the change took place naturally and poses no threat to the area or its inhabitants.

"It absolutely does not point to" any movement of leaked plutonium and americium outward from the waste-burial facility, Nelson said. The underground storage area has remained off-limits since the internal leak was detected on Feb. 14, though contaminants have turned up in minor quantities at the location's surface.

The Energy expert's assessment received backing from Russell Hardy, head of New Mexico State University's Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center. 

Hardy said the town's elevated radiation level still remained short of his 20 disintegrations-per-minute threshold for suspecting unusual radioactive activity for the region. He attributed fluctuations in regional radiation levels in part to remnants from Cold War-era nuclear testing.

"I wouldn't say it's harmful at all," Hardy said of recent developments. "I think it's a gross overreaction."

The Energy Department dismissed Internet claims that the waste facility could endanger 14 million people residing in New Mexico, Texas and Northern Mexico.

"There is absolutely no basis for these rumors," a departmental news release states.

Measurements "of air, soil, water and vegetation" by the Nuclear Waste Partnership, the storage site's contract operator, "are showing no radiation releases that would approach levels causing health concerns," the Energy Department stated.

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