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Nuke-leak probe focuses on Los Alamos National Lab

  • Article by: JERI CLAUSING
  • Associated Press
  • June 26, 2014 - 5:00 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Officials investigating a mysterious radiation leak from the government's underground nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico have turned their focus to Los Alamos National Laboratory, a state regulator said Thursday.

The U.S. Department of Energy's accident investigation team has been at the lab in northeastern New Mexico for about three weeks, New Mexico Environment Department General Counsel Jeff Kendall said.

A canister shipped from Los Alamos to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad burst in the mine on Feb. 14, contaminating 22 workers and shuttering the nation's only permanent repository for waste from decades of building nuclear bombs. Officials also are monitoring whether hundreds of other barrels from Los Alamos that are currently stored at the nuclear waste dump, Los Alamos and a facility in West Texas are at risk of bursting.

The investigation by the Department of Energy's accident investigation team is one of just nine underway, Kendall said. The state is among those investigating the accident, and Kendall said he expects administrative actions and fines will be levied against the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and Los Alamos as more information is uncovered.

Initial probes by federal regulators into the leak and an underground truck fire six days earlier identified a host of management and safety shortcomings. Communications between Los Alamos and the contractor that packaged its waste for shipment to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant have raised questions about oversight by the lab.

The waste was packed with cat litter to absorb moisture, and teams of scientists are trying to determine whether a switch from inorganic to organic litter is to blame for helping fuel a chemical reaction.

More than 500 barrels of so-called transuranic waste from Los Alamos were packed with the organic litter. More than 350 of those are already underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. More than 100 are in temporary storage in West Texas and 57 are at Los Alamos. Those potentially suspect drums have been specially packed and are under constant monitoring, officials said.

Additionally, documents posted on the lab's website indicate that several of the drums have been singled out for special scrutiny, but lab officials have declined comment on why or whether investigators are getting any closer to determining what caused the barrel to leak.

Also unknown is how long the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant will be shuttered.

Kendall said he expects the Department of Energy to come to the state in July with details on "how the recovery plan is working, deadlines, dates and timelines" for cleaning up the contaminated mine and reopening it.

Kendall made the comments during a New Mexico Court of Appeals hearing on the environment department's dispute with the watchdog Southwest Research and Information Center over the process it followed in issuing a permit for a new type of barrel for some of the waste that is shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. None of those barrels have been tied to the leak.

Asked if it was possible the nuclear dump would never reopen, Eileen McDonough, a Justice Department attorney representing Department of Energy, told the judges "I don't foresee that. Nobody is contemplating a closure of WIPP. "

But she estimated it would be at least 2016 before it could reopen.

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