World

Leak may sideline New Mexico nuclear waste site for five years

REUTERS

It may be five years before a nuclear waste dump in New Mexico closed by a radiation leak is fully operational again, and the facility will need at least $240 million to pay for the initial recovery, a U.S. Energy Department official said on Tuesday.

Operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where radiological debris from U.S. nuclear labs and weapons sites is disposed of in a salt mine half a mile (1 km) below ground, were suspended in February after an accident released high levels of radiation and contaminated 22 workers.

Findings from a preliminary investigation of the accident suggest at least one barrel of plutonium-tainted waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe ruptured after being stored at the underground dump.

The dump, managed for the department by contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, could begin disposing of waste already in place at the complex in the southeastern New Mexico desert as early as 2016, Mark Whitney, acting assistant secretary for the Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management, said at a news conference.

The projected cost for activities like decontamination that will allow the plant to resume initial operations is $240 million, he said.

But the facility may not be fully operational until 2019 in a long-term recovery plan that calls for a new ventilation system and exhaust shaft in the salt mine, projects whose costs are not immediately available, Whitney said.

Top government scientists have been unable to replicate a chemical reaction that generated excessive levels of heat and breached at least one barrel of waste from Los Alamos whose mix of nitrate salts and organic matter was not permitted for disposal in the salt mine, according to state and federal regulators.

Whitney said there was no evidence that more than one container was involved in the leak. None of the contaminated workers were believed exposed in amounts expected to harm their health.

Yet the department has authorized the purchase of equipment that will allow the contractor to more fully examine a room in the disposal panel where the radiation leak happened to determine if other barrels are intact.

Energy officials and the contractor have proposed “expedited initial closure” of the room and a neighboring panel that may contain drums with a similar chemically reactive mix, according to the recovery plan.

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