ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Management of the U.S. government’s only underground nuclear waste repository will be taken over later this year by a company created by one of the largest engineering, construction and project management firms in the world.
The U.S. Energy Department announced Monday that the new contract with the Bechtel company to oversee the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico is worth up to $3 billion if all options are exercised over the next decade.
The current contract with Nuclear Waste Partnership will expire at the end of September, when Bechtel’s Tularosa Basin Range Services LLC is scheduled to take over.
Nuclear watchdog groups have been pushing for years for a change at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, citing problems that included a 2014 fire and radiation release. The incidents forced a nearly three-year closure and a costly overhaul of the policies and procedures that govern the nation’s cleanup of waste resulting from decades of nuclear weapons research and bomb making.
The Energy Department’s Office of Environmental Management received five proposals for the lucrative contract. The agency did not disclose the other bidders.
Dena Volovar, Bechtel National Inc.’s executive vice president, called it an honor for the company to be chosen.
“The mission to safely dispose of defense-related nuclear waste is vitally important for protecting people and the planet,” she said in a statement.
Over more than 20 years, tons of Cold War-era waste have been stashed deep in the salt caverns that make up the repository, with officials saying the shifting salt will eventually entomb the radioactive waste. The waste includes special boxes and barrels packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements.
The repository’s current footprint includes several sections, which the U.S. Energy Department estimates will be filled in a few years. Federal officials confirmed during a community meeting last week that more space is needed and the mining of additional sections would have to go through an environmental approval process that would include an opportunity for public comment.
Environmentalists and residents shared concerns during the meeting about New Mexico becoming a sacrifice zone for the nation’s nuclear waste and about the safety of continuously transporting waste across the country.
Bechtel also will inherit a couple of multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects that are underway at the repository, including the construction of a new ventilation system necessitated by the radiation release. Adequate airflow will be needed to ramp up waste disposal operations and for the mining of more disposal space.