Science Sunday: Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center New report shows that WIPP waste isn’t on the radar

Carlsbad Current-Argus

CARLSBAD — The Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center seems to appeal to scientists who value both their independence and the opportunity to further the scope of the research they previously conducted at academic institutions.

Dr. Betsy Stone and Dr. Punam Thakur, who both joined CEMRC’s staff in 2009, have quickly become essential components of the center’s research team, which recently published its annual summary of results on its Web page at

“We were very fortunate to have these two professional scientists join our staff,” said Jim Conca, CEMRC director. “I’m thrilled that our center seems to draw talented scientists from a wide variety of fields who are interested in starting their careers.

Additionally, I feel that Dr. Stone and Dr. Thakur are excellent role models for young women in Carlsbad and New Mexico who are interested starting a career in science.”

The results of the Center’s summary could easily be summarized as follows — What WIPP?

Despite having the world’s most sensitive detection instruments, CEMRC found no statistical data in area monitoring to indicate the presence of the transuranic waste emplaced at the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, according to the 2008 report. CEMRC continued its ongoing study of air exhausts at and around the repository site, water samples in the vicinity and internal examinations of WIPP employees and Carlsbad residents. WIPP waste just doesn’t show up on the radar? and it’s a very sensitive radar.

CEMRC is a division of the College of Engineering and the Institute for Energy and the Environment at New Mexico State University, tasked with independently monitoring and researching WIPP. This facility includes environmental and general radiochemistry laboratories, a special plutonium-uranium lab, an in vivo bioassay facility, mobile laboratories, computing operations and offices.

CEMRC has partnered with Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory, and URS Washington TRU Solutions to create a unique facility with programs that includes environmental monitoring of almost any radiological and inorganic constituent.

The center monitors at levels orders of magnitude below action or compliance levels, and even below the level of background radiation. The lab is therefore able to detect miniscule amounts of plutonium in its examination of air exhausts at and near the WIPP site. The trace amounts of radiation detected fluctuate depending on how dusty a given season is.

“We basically just collect the dust blowing around,” CEMRC Director Jim Conca said. “You can always see something, but you can see that it’s connected with seasonal dust storms.”

“Our intention is to go below background levels and see if there is anything at all that you can see,” said Thakur, a radiochemist who recently came to CEMRC after obtaining her doctorate from Florida State University. One reason CEMRC emphasizes air samples and body counts is because public surveys conducted in the 1990s indicated that the community felt those to be the most probable pathways of possible contamination, were it to ever occur.

In 2007, CEMRC reported a small quantity of plutonium in composite aerosol samples. However, Thakur, after she joined the CEMRC team, was able to conclude that the detection was actually due to a minor contamination of the counting measurements.

“We did some blank experiments to find out that it was a technical contamination,” Thakur said. There were also very small quantities of plutonium detected during specific aerosol samples taken in 2003 and 2008. The activity was extremely low and within historical background rates, but indicated the ability of the monitoring program to detect radionuclides at any level.

“The concentrations are so low that it is impossible to determine the origin,” CEMRC summarized in its 2008 report. “Like so much involved in nuclear and environmental issues, detection at these levels becomes a philosophical issue.”

In the past, CEMRC has determined small amounts of the plutonium detected to be mostly from fallout from nuclear testing. Researchers have even isolated particles from the 1961 Gnome Project, which took place near WIPP.

“But it’s nothing from WIPP,” Conca said. “We started monitoring before WIPP opened, and now well after WIPP opened there’s still no change.”

Dr. Stone, an environmental chemist who recently obtained her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, focuses on a chemical evaluation of the atmosphere around WIPP. She also conducts studies on volatile organic compounds in gases.

“We’re looking for things we know are toxic and harmful to the environment and making sure there is no exposure,” she said.

As with the radiation examples, Stone’s research concludes that while trace amounts of toxic metals are detected in the area around WIPP, the same metals, at the same level, are detected in other areas away from WIPP.

“We see things that are ubiquitous,” she said. “There’s not anything that we’re concerned about.”

Following standardized EPA methods, samples are collected by CEMRC’s field programs division. Various CEMRC departments work together to ensure that all measurements and samples taken are consistent and compatible.

WIPP also doesn’t show up on the radar in CEMRC’s internal dosimetry program, in which whole-body counts at the center are conducted on WIPP employees and other residents of the area. CEMRC has a contract with various employers affiliated with WIPP, and the center also invites members of the public to check themselves free of charge in its Lie Down and Be Counted program.

The center’s bioassay facility provides so much detail that technicians can determine the age of the person, whether or not they smoke and background on any number of other tidbits about their life.

Adrienne Navarrette is an operator for CEMRC’s whole-body count machine. She performs counts on WIPP employees and also on members of the public who come in for the Lie Down and Be Counted Program.

In examining the data, Navarrette and her colleagues are able to observe, for example, how much potassium is in a given person’s body. She can also even tell what continent someone comes from, based on their radiation signature.

“People from Europe, especially Eastern Europe, will show some amount of cesium,” Thakur noted. But the data can’t be used to determine whether a test subject is working at WIPP, because employees just don’t show any sign of being in contact with WIPP’s waste.

Navarrette, a Carlsbad native, said she’s been working at CEMRC for almost a year and a half and doesn’t mind the fact that nothing unusual turns up during whole-body counts. The experience has solidified her belief that WIPP is safe, she said.

CEMRC still wants more volunteers for its Lie Down and Be Counted program, Navarrette said. The difficult part is that most volunteers will report once, find nothing, and then not come back.

Stone said she enjoys the research she gets to conduct at CEMRC.

“It is a good opportunity to expand what I do with aerosol to also include soil samples. To work on a project that does such a comprehensive environmental monitoring is really unique. I also think that what WIPP is doing is really important,” she said.

She also said she appreciates CEMRC’s high level of independence. “I see my role as a scientist, to make high-quality and accurate measurements and to report those results to the greater community,” she noted. “My work is not biased by politics, funding, or any outside pressure.”

The native Midwesterner added that she enjoys living somewhere with warmer winters.

“My passion for the outdoors was a driving force in my career and led me to study and research the chemistry of the environment,” Stone said. “Carlsbad is a great place for me to pursue my scientific interests, further my career and enjoy the outdoors.”

CEMRC’s 2008 report that there’s no trace of WIPP is nothing new. The Center has published similar results every year. In fact, CEMRC is currently undergoing a change in which it will continue to monitor humans and air annually, but will rotate between monitoring other mediums, such as soil and water, on a yearly basis. CEMRC can then use the preserved resources to conduct other experiments.

“But it’s nice to know,” Conca said. “WIPP has been receiving remote-handled transuranic waste now for two years, and people may think there’s something (possible exposure to additional radiation) from remote-handled waste. But exposure is even less likely (than with contact-handled waste) because it’s so heavily shielded.”

“The main thing we are saying is that WIPP is now 11 years old, and nothing is coming out in our air or water. There really is nothing,” Thakur said.

Dr. Stone agreed.

“Everything I’ve seen so far has convinced me that WIPP safe,” she said.

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