Fire prompts evacuation at WIPP

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By Associated Press

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Emergency crews battled a fire Wednesday at the southeastern New Mexico site where the federal government seals away its low-grade nuclear waste, including plutonium-contaminated clothing and tools.

Six people were treated for smoke inhalation and released a short while later after a truck hauling salt caught fire at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

All employees were evacuated from the underground site after the fire broke out about 11 a.m. Wednesday, and none of the radioactive waste was affected, plant officials said.

Authorities said they weren't sure what caused the blaze.

At an afternoon news conference, officials said the fire occurred on a truck in the facility's north mine, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported. Nuclear waste is stored in the south mine, officials said.

Fire suppression systems and rescue teams were immediately activated, and all waste handling operations were suspended, officials said.

A spokeswoman answering an emergency line Wednesday evening said it was unclear if the fire was still burning or when the site might reopen. The spokeswoman, Sonna Herrick, said carbon monoxide readings indicated the fire was out, but crews would not be able to confirm that or investigate the cause of the fire until they get permission to go underground. Any re-entry must be approved by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., issued a statement characterizing the event as a "minor fire."

"It is critically important to note that at no point did the fire threaten the waste disposed of at the WIPP, nor was the community or public ever at risk," he said.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the nation's first and only deep geological nuclear repository. It takes plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and defense projects, and buries it in rooms cut from underground salt beds.

Nevada's Yucca Mountain is another underground site built as a potential repository for used nuclear fuel, but it is not operational, said Rod McCullum, the director of used-fuels programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The New Mexico facility receives 17 to 19 shipments each week from sites around the country, including Los Alamos and installations in Idaho, Illinois and South Carolina.

The lab, meanwhile, released a statement Wednesday night.

“The LANL WIPP shipment for today was postponed due to adverse weather. We have a
WIPP shipment scheduled for tomorrow and are awaiting word on it, both weather and
WIPP operability, if we can ship.

"LANL will continue processing waste as normal preparing waste for future shipment,
and we will stay tuned for any longer term WIPP operations impacts and lessons

The repository is licensed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency every five years, McCullum said.

U.S. Congressman Steve Pearce issued the following statement regarding an incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)
near Carlsbad today:

"Today, a single salt removal truck experienced a minor fire in an incident at WIPP,
which was not connected to waste disposal operations. WIPP's activation of its
Emergency Operation Center in a timely and effective procedural response is a
testament to the professionalism of the site's employees.

"It is critically important to note that at no point did the fire threaten the waste
disposed of at the WIPP, nor was the community or public ever at risk. It is
equally important to note that all employees are accounted for and safe."