Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center, said the contamination levels will depend on the workers’ proximity to the material.
“If you’re standing by a 55-gallon drum of plutonium and americium, not much problem. But when you get even a small portion of what’s in that drum in the air and you breathe it in, then you do have a problem,” he said.
Government officials, politicians, the contractors that run the mine and local officials all say it is too soon to speculate on what the short- or long-term impacts of the shutdown might be, or where else the toxic waste would go.
“A lot of people are just jumping up and down and wanting us to shut down,” said Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership that runs the site. “But that’s not the case here. We’ve designed this facility to look at these types of accidents, and we’ve planned on making sure that we continue to protect our employees and we protect the environment. And our system worked as designed.”
Per Peterson, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California who served on a presidential panel on nuclear waste, said that from what he has read, the radiation exposure suffered by the plant workers was small enough not to be a major health risk.
But he said the nation has a responsibility to clean up contaminated material from the historical U.S. program to make nuclear weapons.
“It would almost be a national tragedy if we were to derail cleanup of the legacy nuclear weapons complex because of this accident,” he said.