It burbled up like whipped cream out of a spray can, but it was radioactive.
“A 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste, buried in a salt shaft 2,150 feet under the New Mexico desert, violently erupted late on Feb. 14 and spewed mounds of radioactive white foam,” begins the Los Angeles Times in a report on the shaky, unreliable safety measures in place for storing nuclear waste at a facility in New Mexico. “The flowing mass, looking like whipped cream but laced with plutonium, went airborne, traveled up a ventilation duct to the surface and delivered low-level radiation doses to 21 workers.”
Luckily the doses of radiation the workers received, even though they were not removed to a safer location for a number of hours, was less than the amount considered detrimental to health. But the event itself is still a mystery, even down to the contents of the barrel that exploded, and the U.S. Department of Energy is far from understanding what happened, and thus how to prevent it. This in a facility that was designed as a flagship, an example of state-of-the-art storage for nuclear waste, in particular the leftovers from weapons manufacturing.
Over and over again, industrial accidents belie the assurances that corporations and governments give the doubting public about fail-safe practices for fossil-fuel extraction, waste storage and the like, the one thing that never seems to factor in is an allowance for human error.
These omissions can have deadly consequences, as with the Lac Megantic train derailment that destroyed the center of a small town in Quebec, or devastate the environment, as with the Polley Mine tailings pond dam breach that poisoned pristine British Columbia waterways earlier this month. It’s the basis for lack of trust over everything from pipelines to coal trains, and it’s the one thing that corporations would rather we not see.
The Los Angeles Times’s stunning report illustrates just such a set of lapses and shows their effect on the environment, and beyond. An essential read.
Read Cause of New Mexico Nuclear Waste Accident Remains a Mystery in the Los Angeles Times.