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State fines LANL, WIPP $54 million

This photo provided by the federal Department of Energy shows a damaged container of radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory, with its lid unsealed and apparent heat discoloration

This photo provided by the federal Department of Energy shows a damaged container of radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory, with its lid unsealed and apparent heat discoloration. (Courtesy of DOE)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The New Mexico Environment Department has fined the Los Alamos National Laboratory and nuclear waste repository WIPP more than $54 million for hazardous waste violations – the largest-ever civil penalties levied by the state against the federal government.

Following a nine-month investigation, the state on Saturday said it found more than three dozen violations at the Department of Energy facilities related to an underground fire and a radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant outside Carlsbad. The radiation leak has been traced to a drum of nuclear waste that came from LANL.

A hot reaction in the drum deposited underground at WIPP is believed to have caused the Valentine’s Day radiation leak that contaminated nearly two dozen workers with low levels of radiation.

NMED identified 13 violations of WIPP’s permit – including safety and maintenance violations – and levied civil penalties of $17.7 million.

At LANL, the state Environment Department identified a total of 24 violations – including mishandling how nuclear waste was treated and packaged – and fined the lab $36.6 million in civil penalties.

LANL and WIPP representatives directed interview requests to DOE headquarters. A DOE spokeswoman did not respond Saturday to a request for comment.

The penalties may not be the final word, however.

The Department of Energy has “an opportunity to demonstrate future compliance,” NMED said in a statement, which could trigger penalty reductions. At the same time, NMED could also levy additional fines related to violations not covered by these initial compliance orders.

“We were intentionally very conservative,” said state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn. “The actions you see today are related to very clear-cut violations of the permit that have already been self-disclosed by LANL and WIPP or are self-evident. There is not a lot of room for interpretation.”

According to NMED policies, the violations at WIPP could have carried fines as high as $25 million at WIPP and as much as $67 million at LANL. The lower fines levied “are based on a dispassionate application of our penalty policy,” Flynn said.

Gov. Susana Martinez delivered the two compliance orders to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz at a meeting Saturday in Las Vegas, Nev., where the Western Governors’ Association winter meetings are taking place.

New Mexico has the right to fine the U.S. government as part of the deal that allowed WIPP to open in the state 15 years ago. The deep underground repository is the nation’s primary facility for disposing of certain types of Cold War-era defense nuclear waste.

A February truck fire underground and a Valentine’s Day radiation leak shut down WIPP. DOE has said the cleanup could cost more than $500 million, and it could take years to reopen the facility.

Federal dollars destined for environmental cleanup or operational needs at LANL and WIPP should not be used to pay the penalties, Flynn said.

Although the state does not have authority to determine how the federal government pays up, Flynn said the state has “quite a bit of leverage” and will not negotiate any adjustment of liability if DOE attempts to divert resources from the environmental or operational budgets of federal facilities in New Mexico to pay the fines.

“We’re committed to making sure DOE doesn’t punish New Mexico for DOE’s own mistakes,” Flynn said.

Ultimately, the burden “falls on the taxpayers,” said Don Hancock, a longtime WIPP observer with Albuquerque’s Southwest Research and Information Center.

Hancock said the degree of violations at both sites should require a review of the contractors in charge at each, Nuclear Waste Partnership at WIPP and Los Alamos National Security at LANL.

“I would argue that with the failures of LANS at Los Alamos and NWP at WIPP, the contracts could be terminated for poor performance,” Hancock said. “That’s not going to happen. The sites are so dependent on the contractors that they are too big to fail.”

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