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NMSU's Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center marks three major milestones

CARLSBAD, N.M. - The Presidential Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on America's Nuclear Future will soon visit southern New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) as a model operation; WIPP is independently monitored for health and environmental safety by the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC) through New Mexico State University's Institute for Energy and the Environment (IEE). The second landmark event for CEMRC/WIPP is that it recently earned recertification by the Environmental Protection Agency for its excellent safety record. The third major achievement is attaining "invisibility" regarding the measurement of zero radiation in people and the environment.



Adrianne Navarrette, lab assistant, left, explains the whole body count process to Kaitlan Tulk, chemical technician, while Tulk participates in the "Lie Down and Be Counted" program at CEMRC. The LDBC program detects types and amounts of various radiation particles, and has been in operation since 1997. (Lyndi Owens/CEMRC)

The Presidential BRC will meet with the Carlsbad community Jan. 26-27 and review WIPP's safety and transportation protocols after 11 million miles of impeccable operations. The Department of Energy (DOE) WIPP site is the world's only repository licensed to handle and isolate transuranic waste from defense-related activities. The waste is stored 2,150 feet below the earth's surface in an ancient salt formation. The presidential panel is in part tasked with finding solutions for nuclear waste currently stored in or near large population centers. This expert panel was also assembled to meet the presidential mandate to evaluate the expansion of our nation's capacity to generate clean energy, combat climate change and enhance energy security.

"The complex geopolitical issues that make up energy and the environment include this type of logistical support for domestic security. We facilitate these activities in any way we can," said George Mulholland, CEMRC's interim director. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez will give a presentation to the commission, comprised of 15 appointed members recognized as experts across a wide range of fields. One of the panel members, former U.S. Senator for New Mexico, Pete V. Domenici, cited WIPP's sound safety record of 11 years of operation without incident. WIPP's continued compliance with federal disposal regulations and outstanding safety record is reinforced by its other recent milestone of achieving recertification by the EPA.

"The EPA's decision shows that the plan for managing WIPP, which was put together after decades of research and study, remains the best way to safely isolate TRU (transuranic) waste for thousands of years and beyond," said Interim Acting Carlsbad Field Office Manager Ed Ziemianski.

CEMRC/WIPP's third safety landmark is achieving "invisibility" in the measurement of radiation in people and the environment. Within the 26,000 sq. ft. facility, CEMRC staff members perform extensive health monitoring for radiation workers statewide and civilians living within 100 miles of the WIPP site without finding any contamination. Lie Down and Be Counted (LDBC) has been operating since 1997 with 367 volunteers measured to collect baseline data. The comparison data shows that no increase has been identified so far.

LDBC is conducted as an outreach service to the public under the internal dosimetry program and includes in vivo bioassays to measure the presence of radionuclides within body tissues or fluids. Staff can see increased levels of potassium-40 in participants with large muscle mass. There is also an increased measurement in uranium and cesium-137 in other participants. This appears to be from tobacco that is deposited in the lungs from smoking.

The counting chamber is equipped with a lung and whole body counting system using technologically advanced, hyperpure germanium detectors. Lung and whole body counts are simultaneously performed with the counting subject lying horizontally on a specially designed counting bed. Anyone is welcome to go and get tested at the facility. CMERC also has an on-site radiochemistry lab, conducts field programs and emergency preparedness exercises for first responders from across the nation. To find out more or schedule a whole body count, visit http://www.cemrc.org or call Jim Monk at 575-234-5533.

CEMRC is one of three Centers of Excellence that comprise IEE. Others include WERC, a consortium for environmental education and technology development, and SWTDI, a renewable energy resource group. For more information, contact Abbas Ghassemi, IEE director, at 800-523-5996 or 575-646-2038, or visit http://iee.nmsu.edu/.