Officials said they're confident the incidents are unrelated. And while they emphasize that the levels detected off-site are no more harmful than a dental X-ray, they have not been able to go underground, and have not directly answered questions about how contaminated the tunnels might be.
"There's a whole lot of stuff that we don't know," said Hancock. "A lot more sampling that needs to be done."
WIPP is the nation's only deep underground geological repository. And opponents will certainly use the case to fight against any expansion of WIPP's mission.
"I'd say the push for expansion is part of the declining safety culture that has resulted in the fire and the radiation release," Hancock said.
"I've been talking to (DOE Carlsbad filed office manager) Joe Franco and other people for a while about my concern that we all can get a little complacent when we think we know what we're doing and everything is just fine."
Sharif said Hancock's assertions that safety was lax are "absolutely not true.'"
He said he believes the accidents "will demonstrate how robust the facility is," and that the lessons learned will make it safer.
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway concedes, however, the accident could have long-term effects.
"I am worried about the impact," he said. "I'm not worried about the (radiation) levels."
The project, which employs about 650 people, still has strong support in this blue-collar mining town of about 30,000.
"It is important not only for the community, but it's also extraordinarily important for the country," said John Heaton, a former state senator and chairman of the Carlsbad Nuclear Task Force. "Being able to clean up the complex is important for all of us. It is a defense program. All of us in the country have an obligation to deal with the defense issues, whether it's clean up, whether it's fighting wars or preparing for fighting wars."
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