Radiation Zone: Are Lubbockites at Risk?

When a radiation leak was reported at a nuclear storage facility 162 miles from Lubbock, residents panicked.

By Ashley Hinson

LUBBOCK, TX—When a radiation leak was reported at a nuclear storage facility 162 miles from Lubbock, residents panicked.

The internet exploded with fear that wind would carry the tainted air from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico to Lubbock.

“It’s always a concern because radiation can be dangerous,” said Dr. Ron Chesser, a nuclear expert at Texas Tech.  “It scares the public to death.” 

Chesser spent 22 years studying the effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe.  He said the Carlsbad incident wasn’t as bad as everyone thought.

“The amount of radiation that escaped the WIPP site was so small that even if wind had carried it towards Lubbock, Texas it's going to be so diffused by the time it gets here,” said Chesser.

Chesser said even the 21 employees who were exposed while running the site experienced no ramifications. 

“You get much more radiation from an X-ray and people don’t think about that,” he said.

John Heaton, the mayor of Carlsbad’s chairman of the nuclear task force, said dampers that close on their ventilation system to prevent air contaminated with radiation from escaping into the atmosphere didn’t close correctly on February 14.

“In the closure process it may have taken more time than anticipated,” said Heaton.  “We think maybe a small puff was able to get out.”

The consequences may have been minimal, but a recently released U.S. Department of Energy investigation shows safety and emergency management operations at WIPP were lacking.

The report shows there was a “degradation of key safety management programs and safety culture” at the facility including a “reluctance to bring up and document issues” among employees.

Heaton acknowledges that complacency.

“We’ve learned that there are some issues,” Heaton said.  “There will be a lot of changes I’m sure.”

Those changes, Heaton said, include better oversight and a better filter design to prevent another leak. 

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