Thirteen employees working the night shift at a nuclear waste burial site in New Mexico are carrying radioactive materials in their bodies after an underground leak. The leak has brought new attention to the nation’s ongoing struggle to find places to dispose of tons of Cold War-era waste.
The aboveground radiation release caused the workers to inhale plutonium and americium, which if lodged in the body bombards internal organs with subatomic particles for the rest of the person’s lifetime. The exposure has 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.
The dilemma about what to do with the nuclear waste is highly politicized. An example of the dilemma that communities nationwide face over nuclear waste, documents obtained Friday by The Associated Press found that there are “significant construction flaws” in some storage tanks at Washington state’s Hanford nuclear waste complex. Taxpayers spend about $2 billion a year to clean up radioactive waste at the site.
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.