Radiation Puts New Mexico Nuclear Waste Site in ‘Shutdown Mode’

~  An alarm went off at the facility near Carlsbad, New Mexico Friday night around 11pm
~  None of the site's employees were exposed to radiation
~  Officials don't know what caused the leak or how much radiation was leaked
~  This is the first real alarm at the facility since it opened in 1999
~  The WIPP process 6,000 cubic meters of radioactive material every year

Crews are preparing to investigate a mystery radiation leak 2,000 feet underground in a facility where waste from the country's nuclear weapons program is kept in sealed containers

Officials are at a loss to explain what has caused the excessive leak at the Carlsbad Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico which is designed to store waste underground for centuries.

Operations at the desert facility were shut down following an incident earlier this month when a truck caught fire underground and several workers suffered smoke inhalation.

Department of Energy investigators still don't know whether that incident played a role in this new leak, since they haven't been cleared to go underground to find the source.

'They will not go in today. It's a safety thing more than anything. We're waiting until we get other assessments done before we authorize re-entry,' DOE spokesman Bill Mackie said.

An air monitor which detects airborne radiation went off around 11pm Friday.

While it wasn't the first time alarms have rung at the facility, officials believe this was the first real alarm in the history of the plant since it opened in 1999.

                   Sealed: The salt is supposed to keep the waste from penetrating water supplies

Because the plant was in shutdown mode, no employees were underground when the alarm went off and none of the 139 workers above ground were exposed.

The alarm system automatically switched the the facility's ventilation system to filtration in order to keep the leak from reaching the surface.

The WIPP sits over salt deposits which help seal transuranic waste discarded from the country's nuclear weapons program such as machinery and clothing.

The salt deposits keep the material from contaminating water supplies since it takes about a billion years for water to move an inch in the deposits.

The plant processes some 6,000 cubic meters of radiative waste a year and employs 800 people.

It is expected to continue accepting materials until 2030.


The World Isolation Pilot Plant was opened in 1999 to store transuranic radioactive waste for 10,000 years.

It is the third deepest geological storage center int he word after two different repositories in Germany.

The facility receives waste contaminated with plutonium, uranium, americium and neptunium.

Transuranic waste are materials that come in contact with radiation such as gloves, tools, rags and machinery.

While they may not be as potent as nuclear reactor byproducts, transuranic waste can continue to contaminate for up to 24,000 years.

Since it opened in 1999, WIPP has processed 400,000 55-gallon drums containing these radioactive materials and functioned without incident until Friday.

These cask drums are stored in rooms constructed into the salt basin 2,150 feet below ground.

The rooms will help seal the materials from posing a risk to public health since it takes a billion years for water to move even an inch in the salty basin.

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Extraterrestrial Life Form in Earth’s Stratosphere

British astrobiologists are claiming to have found alien life form in the Earth’s stratosphere. They collected a small diatom frustule that could have come from space after sending a balloon to 27 km into the stratosphere during the recent Perseid meteor shower.

“Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth, but it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27 km. The only known exception is by a violent volcanic eruption, none of which occurred within three years of the sampling trip,” explained Prof Milton Wainwright from the University of Sheffield, who is a lead author of a paper reporting the discovery in the Journal of Cosmology (full paper).

This image shows a diatom frustule, possibly a Nitzschia species, captured on a stud from a height of 25 km in the stratosphere. Image credit: Milton Wainwright et al.

“In the absence of a mechanism by which large particles like these can be transported to the stratosphere we can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space. Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving to Earth from space, life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here.”

“If life does continue to arrive from space then we have to completely change our view of biology and evolution. New textbooks will have to be written!”

The balloon was launched near Chester, UK, and carried microscope studs which were only exposed to the atmosphere when the balloon reached heights of between 22 and 27 km.

The balloon landed safely and intact near Wakefield, UK. The scientists then discovered that they had captured a diatom fragment and some unusual biological entities from the stratosphere, all of which are too large to have come from Earth.

The team is hoping to extend and confirm their results by carrying out the test again in October 2013 to coincide with the upcoming Haley’s Comet-associated meteorite shower when there will be large amounts of cosmic dust. It is hoped that more new, or unusual, organisms will be found.

“Of course it will be argued that there must be an, as yet, unknown mechanism for transferring large particles from Earth to the high stratosphere, but we stand by our conclusions. The absolutely crucial experiment will come when we do what is called ‘isotope fractionation’. We will take some of the samples which we have isolated from the stratosphere and introduce them into a complex machine – a button will be pressed. If the ratio of certain isotopes gives one number then our organisms are from Earth, if it gives another, then they are from space. The tension will obviously be almost impossible to live with!” Prof Wainwright said.

   Additional information

The research was conducted by Professor (Hon. Cardiff and Buckingham Universities) Milton Wainwright from the University of Sheffield, Chris Rose and Alex Baker from the University of Sheffield’s Leonardo Centre for Tribology and Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe Director of the Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham.

The University of Sheffield

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