US seeks bids to manage underground nuclear waste dump

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Energy Department is seeking bids to manage the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository amid efforts to rebound from a pandemic-related slowdown and as work continues to replace the facility’s ventilation system following a 2014 radiation release that forced a nearly three-year closure.

The agency issued its final request for proposals for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on Wednesday. The four-year contract to manage the southern New Mexico facility is worth about $3 billion and includes six one-year extension options.

The current contract with Nuclear Waste Partnership is set to expire next April. The company plans to bid again.

The repository is central to the federal government’s multibillion-dollar program for cleaning up Cold War-era waste left over at sites around the country that were involved in bomb making and nuclear research.

State environmental regulators recently concluded a virtual public meeting on proposed permit changes that watchdog groups have said could open the door to expanded operations at the repository. It will be months before a final decision is made.

While federal law limits the kind of waste that can be shipped to the repository, opponents have said the U.S. Energy Department is looking to expand the mission to include high-level and other types of waste.

Watchdog groups and other critics have accused the federal government and Congress of stalling numerous efforts to open other repositories and find other solutions to both defense-related waste and spent nuclear fuel that’s piling up at commercial nuclear power plants around the U.S.

The repository has been in operation for more than two decades, having received nearly 12,900 shipments and disposing of the waste in vaults that have been mined out of a salt formation deep underground. The idea is that the shifting salt will eventually entomb the radioactive tools, clothing, gloves and other debris that make up the waste.

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