Thirteen personnel at a New Mexico nuclear-waste site were found to have been exposed to heightened radiation after contaminants escaped into the air.
The signs showed up in biological materials collected from staffers on duty in subterranean portions of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Feb. 14, when an automated sensor detected airborne radioactive particles inside the New Mexico complex, the Associated Press reports. The incident came 10 days after an equipment fire at the site, though a Wednesday New York Times report suggested the events were not related.
No external indications of contaminants were discovered on workers on the day of the alert, AP reported. But biological samples were collected and initially tested to determine if workers had breathed in radioactive materials.
"[Affected] employees, both federal and contractor, will be asked to provide additional samples in order to fully determine the extent of any exposure," says a Wednesday press release from the U.S. Energy Department and the Nuclear Waste Partnership, the storage facility's private operator.
A Thursday afternoon press conference is expected at which Energy and contracting officials are to address the matter.
Overseers have said air tests indicate that the airborne contaminants came from a broken waste tank, though an in-person assessment would be necessary to identify the rupture's source, AP reported. A tank breach could have occurred if any site roofing had fallen in, or if a forklift had mistakenly pierced a container, Nuclear Waste Partnership head Farok Sharif said earlier this week.
Additional weeks may pass before employees re-enter the facility's below-ground storage area, the wire service quoted site administrators as saying.
The Energy Department previously confirmed that a quantity of radioactive contaminants had also reached the site's surface. However, Wednesday's Times report quoted facility staff and independent experts saying those amounts were minimal and ruling out any health impact for nearby residents. The waste facility is located less than 30 miles from the town of Carlsbad, N.M.