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Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center
College of Engineering

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Environmental Monitoring

(February 16, 2015)  Established in 1991, the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center has operated an independent environmental monitoring program for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to detect for exposure to radioactive materials.  Russell Hardy, director of CEMRC, an entity of the New Mexico State University College of Engineering, was honored at NMSU’s Scholarly Excellence Rally Friday, Feb. 13.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently refunded CEMRC through a five-year, $15 million financial assistance grant to continue to monitor the WIPP site, which is located 28 miles southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico.  A Department of Energy-owned facility, the WIPP facility is a deep geologic disposal facility that permanently disposes of defense-related transuranic waste, and is the first and only facility of its kind in the U.S.  “Our primary mission is to evaluate the environment in and around the WIPP facility to make sure the waste that gets placed underground stays there and doesn’t get released to the air, water, soil or to the people inhabiting Carlsbad or surrounding areas,” Hardy said. 

CEMRC began its environmental monitoring program in 1997, and two years later the WIPP site received its first waste.  “We had two years of background baseline data before any waste was placed into the ground that we then can compare to and show that the WIPP site was not having any impact on the environment,” Hardy said. 

On Feb. 14, 2014, an underground radiation release occurred at the WIPP site, and one or more drums of radioactively-contaminated waste experienced a chemical reaction, which breached the containers and released large amounts of radioactive contamination (Americium and Plutonium) into the underground WIPP ventilation system.  CEMRC was the first to discover and quantify the presence of small amounts of radioactive contamination, which escaped the WIPP site.  CEMRC has supplied important information to both the Department of Energy and residents about the extent of the radiation release and negligible impact to the local environment and the population since the radiation release event one year ago. 

Russell Hardy at CEMRCAdditionally, the CEMRC facility has a lung and whole-body counter that screens for gamma-emitting radioisotopes. CEMRC houses the only counter in the nation that is open to the public.  Hardy said he thinks CEMRC provided a sense of relief for local residents after the WIPP release.  On average the facility conducted 20 to 30 screenings per year prior to the 2014 release.  “Right after the event we saw 60 citizens in a month come in wanting to be counted, and they saw our data and saw that their counts were not detectable, and we saw a calming effect. Now we are back down to one or two a month.” 

To fulfill its commitment as an independent environmental monitoring program, CEMRC collects and analyzes a variety of samples in and around the WIPP facility.  Samples collected include air samples from within the WIPP repository, ambient air samples from the desert surrounding the WIPP repository, soil samples from around the WIPP repository, drinking water samples from five municipal water systems in the region and surface water/sediment samples from three public lakes in the vicinity of the WIPP facility.  “Our primary focus is on airborne contamination,” he added.  “We spend a lot of time looking at the air flowing through the repository because that’s where the waste would eventually be released from and then we look at the air around the desert around the facility to make sure it’s not being pumped out into the environment.” 

At the WIPP site, radioactive and mixed wastes are placed for permanent disposal 2,150-feet underground in 250-million-year-old salt beds.  Primarily due to the absence of water, the Permian-aged salt beds are a suitable disposal method.  Other reasons to utilize salt beds for disposal include a stable geology and a self-healing or plastic-like property that allows the salt to contain the waste and keep it enclosed for hundreds of millions of years. 

CEMRC produces an annual report and all of its data is available to the public.  For more information on CEMRC, visit www.cemrc.org

--Article by Tiffany Acosta, NMSU photos by Darren Phillips, Emily C. Kelley.  See more at newscenter.nmsu.edu.

Program funded by a grant from the United States Department of Energy. 

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