In the last couple of weeks, buried deep in the news, there have been a few reports about a radiation leak that occurred in New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad. Two radiation releases have been acknowledged by officials as of yesterday. Mexican officials are expected to meet with a team of US Department of Energy (DOE) officials today to discuss the February 14 and subsequent incidents of radiation releases.
Mexican officials are concerned because Cd. Juárez officials are ill equipped to handle a large nuclear event on its northern border. Radiation is not isolated by geographical borders and although Mexican officials are not actively participating on any nuclear projects any nuclear accident would also effect residents of Cd. Juárez.
Although publicly stating that the Carlsbad radiation release from February was not the impetus for last week’s radiation preparedness exercise in El Paso the coincidence is poignant at best, especially for Juárez residents.
In 1983, the largest radiation emergency in the history of Cd. Juárez started as a result of a November 25, 1977 illegal importation of a Picker C-3000 cancer therapy machine containing Cobalt-60 from the US into Mexico. By the time the radiation leak had been detected this single source contaminated northern Mexico and 40 states in the US.
A well-known medical clinic in Juárez, Centro Médico de Especialidades, had purchased the machine from the Methodist Hospital in Lubbock. The Juárez clinic was unable to contract the appropriate technicians to put the machine into service and therefore warehoused it.
On December 6, 1983, Vicente Sotelo Aldarín, a maintenance worker for the medical clinic, took the machine apart and in so doing inadvertently released about 6,000 Cobolt-60 pellets. Each pellet measured about one millimeter. (about 1/16”) Yonke Fénix, a Juárez junk yard purchased the dismantled machine from Sotelo for about $10. The junk yard unloaded the scrap metal via a magnetic lifter that mixed the Cobolt-60 pellets with the rest of the scrap metal that was later sold to two manufacturers.
The first manufacturer used the scrap metals to manufacture fast-food table cast iron pedestals. The second manufacturer purchased the scrap metal to make rebar used for construction. Three El Paso distributers and one in Arizona bought 1,000 tons of the construction rebar from the Juárez manufacturer and started to distribute it across the US.
On January 16, 1984, radiation detectors went off at the Los Alamos Laboratories. A truck carrying rebar was eventually identified and its rebar load was tracked back to Cd. Juárez. Mexican officials immediately shut down the junk yard and the two metal manufacturers and began the process of containing the radiation leak.
Using vehicle mounted detectors and helicopter overflights of Cd. Juárez and the surrounding areas eventually almost every Cobolt-60 pellet was recovered. Most of the contaminated rebar was returned to Mexico. About 2,500 contaminated restaurant table pedestals were also returned to Mexico. The pedestals were recovered in 40 US states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. They are all currently buried outside of Samalayuca in a Mexican government radiation containment and disposal site.
As far as the official documents are concerned, there was not a single fatality from the radiation release. This is from both Mexican and US documents. The Mexican official report points out five reasons why the radiation exposure was not more dangerous.
The report points out that the radiation leak was detected because a driver carrying contaminated rebar inadvertently made a wrong turn and setoff the radiation detectors at Los Alamos. The radiation detectors are intended to keep dangerous radiation materials from leaving the laboratory. It was a coincidence that they were set off by the rebar.
The second reason was that the junk yard exclusively sold its scrap metals to the two manufacturers making tracking the finished products easier. The third reason pointed out by the report is that the truck that carried the Cobolt-60 pellets to the junk yard was abandoned for months by its owner Sotelo in front of his house because the truck’s battery had died. Had Sotelo continued to drive the truck during the period between the initial contamination and the discovery many more radioactive pellets would have been spread across the city.
The fourth point is about how the heavier radiation source in the contaminated truck was on the driver-side where fewer people would likely touch or stand near the abandoned vehicle. The final reason was that the magnet used to move the scrap metal at the junkyard actually spread the contaminated pellets into a larger area thus reducing the radiation dose contained by the contaminated finished products.
Although the results of the radiation leak did not amount to a serious bi-national radiation catastrophe the possibility of a future nuclear emergency led to the installation of radiation detectors on the US border with Mexico and a binational emergency preparedness program between both countries. The radiation leak exposed how both countries are equally vulnerable to a nuclear emergency and that geographic borders would not contain the emergency.
Last month’s radiation leak and the recent emergency exercises conducted in El Paso are being downplayed by local officials and the news media. Yonke Fenix has shown us that any leak will affect both countries regardless of where the leak originated or whose fault it is.
Gomez, Garcia Alfredo, May 1987, “Contaminación con Cobalto (CO-60) de Acero y Varilla para la Construcción”, Secretaria de Salud Dirección General de Control Sanitario de Bienes y Servicios
Various El Diario newspaper articles (1983-1985)
Various El Fronterizo newspaper articles (1983-1989)