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WIPP - Failure To Communicate?

Energy.gov via Wikimedia Commons
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The director of an organization that evaluated the WIPP site for over 25 years said officials aren’t doing enough to inform New Mexicans.

Dr. Bob Neill led the Environmental Evaluation Group, which provided independent technical evaluations of the WIPP project for more than two decades. He retired a year after the plant opened in 1999, and the group disbanded in 2004.

He said it’s essential for the government to not only perform analyses and acquire data but to communicate those results to the public. “I just can’t stress the importance of DOE being available to respond to detailed questions that people have,” he said. “There’s no substitute for direct communication.”

Immediately after the leak was discovered, the public should have been given a detailed explanation of what was released, said Dr. Neill, who received his degree in radiological medicine.  Americium 241 and plutonium 239 were mentioned. “But there are four other radio-isotopes of plutonium, namely the 238, 240, the beta and 241,” he said. “They’re all bone-seekers. So you want to be able to report all the values—how each one may have contributed. It’s just essential.”

Neill’s group published more than 90 reports on hydrology, geology, engineering and radiation, and distributed hundreds of copies of those reports locally and nationally. “It’s so important to answer people’s questions—and not just people in Carlsbad, but throughout the state and elsewhere,” he said.

He added that increased outreach would help soothe apprehensions and dispel rumors. “Based on the data I’ve seen, it would be foolish to consider the evacuation of the city of Carlsbad,” he said. “Those kinds of rumors come from the fact that the public gets apprehensive.”

As for the leak itself, he said all of the possible causes of the failure at WIPP must be considered, and a response system should be designed accordingly.

The Department of Energy is hosting town hall meetings in Carlsbad every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. to talk about: the underground truck fire at WIPP in early February, the Valentine’s Day leak and the subsequent radiation emission on March 11. The meetings are also being streamed online.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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