CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) -- The U.S. Department of Energy has appointed a team to investigate the detection of radiation in and near a southeastern New Mexico facility that is the nation's only underground nuclear waste repository in operation.
The assessment of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant will be conducted by an accident investigation board consisting of department officials and representatives of health and safety agencies, the department said in a statement released late Wednesday.
The board will be assisted by experts in fields such as fire protection, ventilation, and mine safety, the department said.
An underground monitor at the plant near Carlsbad detected airborne radiation late Friday night, and an independent monitor center said Wednesday it found radioactive isotopes in an air sensor a half-mile from the plant.
A filter from a monitor northwest of the plant had trace amounts of americium and plutonium, said Russell Hardy, director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, an arm of New Mexico State University.
The detected levels are highest ever detected at or around the site but also far below those deemed unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency, Hardy said.
The department said it is developing a plan for personnel to re-enter the plant and that shipments to the plant have been suspended. However, no shipments were scheduled from Feb. 14 through March 10 because of an annual maintenance work, the department said.
The readings were detected two weeks after a truck hauling salt in an underground mine at the site caught fire, shuttering operations for a few days. Officials said that fire was in an area separate from where nuclear waste is stored.
WIPP is the nation's first and only operating deep geological nuclear repository. It takes plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other defense projects, and buries it in rooms cut from underground salt beds.
The plant began operations in 1999.