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NM nuclear dump officials say environment is safe

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By JERI CLAUSING
Associated Press

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) - Officials investigating a leak from the federal government's only underground nuclear waste dump tried to reassure skeptical southeastern New Mexico residents Monday night that their health is safe.

More than 250 people attended a two-hour meeting to ask questions about back-to-back accidents at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad and the first-known release of radiation from the repository.

"I'm just a mom," said Anna Hovrud, "and my first reaction was to start praying. ... Basically I am not understanding about two-thirds of what has been said here. Is there a chance we could be exposed to radiation, that we are being poisoned somehow, while we are waiting for these samples?"

Joe Franco, who manages the Department of Energy's Carlsbad office, told Hovrud "there is no risk from this event that would be a hazard to you or your children."

Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership that runs the plant, told Hovrud his family also lives in the community. And he said he has been to the site repeatedly in the past week - without protective gear - to gather readings "because I know it is safe."

The elevated amounts of radiation that have been detected in and around the plant offer no more risk than a dental X-ray or an airline flight, officials said.

Still, some left skeptical.

"I feel like they are not telling us everything," said Leah Hunt.

Police were briefly brought to the doors after a man who identified himself as Martin Mills, a mayoral candidate, repeatedly and heatedly interrupted officials as they tried to respond.

"This is like poor management," Mills insisted. "How can this facility be leaking? ... It should not be releasing at all."

Many others, however, said they are confident in the plant's safety record and safety systems.

"I'm not leaving with any worries," said Wanda Durham. "I'm not moving."

After 15 years of operating with a stellar record, a truck that officials said was hauling salt in the facility's underground chambers caught fire Feb. 5, shuttering the plant and halting all waste shipments. Nine days later, a radiation alert activated in the area where newly arrived waste was being stored.

Officials said they're confident that the incidents are unrelated.

An initial analysis of samples from sensors inside and outside the plant indicate a container leaked. But officials say it is unclear what caused the release, and it will likely be weeks before teams can get underground.

WIPP is the nation's first underground nuclear repository and the only facility in the country that can store plutonium-contaminated clothing and tools from Los Alamos National Laboratory and other federal nuclear sites.

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