Fire prompts evacuation of US nuclear repository


Associated Press

Posted on February 5, 2014 at 6:05 PM

CARLSBAD, New Mexico (AP) — Emergency crews are battling a fire in the U.S. government's underground nuclear waste repository.

Officials say a truck hauling salt caught fire about Wednesday morning at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

According to a press release and a spokeswoman who answered the emergency line, all employees have been evacuated and none of the radioactive waste has been affected.

But a press release says "multiple employees" are being taken to a hospital for potential smoke inhalation.

Melissa Suggs, a spokeswoman for the Carlsbad Medical Center, said six patients were brought to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation. "They are all listed in stable condition," she said. All later were released.

Emergency officials say all waste handling operations are suspended and rescue teams have been activated.

The repository takes plutonium-contaminated waste like clothing, tools and other debris from Los Alamos National Laboratory and defense projects. The waste is then buried in rooms cut from underground salt beds.

The Carlsbad Current-Argus reports that officials told a press conference the fire occurred on a salt haulage truck in the north mine and "fire suppression systems" immediately activated underground.

Nuclear waste is stored in the south mine, officials said.

Rod McCullum, the director of used-fuels programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, said WIPP is the nation's only deep geological nuclear repository, and its license gets renewed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency every five years.

WIPP currently receives 17 to 19 shipments each week from sites around the country. WIPP can't accept non-defense nuclear waste unless Congress changes the law defining its mission.