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Nuke dump disposes of first drums of waste in three years

CARLSBAD – Employees at the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository resumed disposal work Wednesday after a nearly three-year hiatus prompted by a radiation release that contaminated a significant portion of the facility.

Two pallets of low-level radioactive waste were emplaced in one of the underground disposal rooms at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico around 12:45 p.m., the U.S. Energy Department confirmed.

The transfer of the drums from an above-ground storage building at the site was first reported by the Carlsbad Current-Argus.

“It went great,” Rick Fuentes, a local union president and a waste handler at the site, told the newspaper. “We’re excited to be back to work.”

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Fuentes said around 20 to 25 people worked to move the waste into its final resting place, which is carved out of an ancient salt bed some 2,000 feet below the desert surface.

The workers included specially trained waste handlers and radiation control technicians. They wore protective clothing and respirators to keep from coming in contact with any contamination, further complicating the effort to move the waste into place.

“You did it!” reads an email sent to employees from Phil Breidenbach, president of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that manages the repository for the federal government. “It’s the day we’ve all been working for and one we’ll remember for a long time!”

Energy Department officials confirmed to The Associated Press that this was the first cycle of operations since authorization to resume work was given by federal officials on Dec. 23.

WIPP has struggled to recover from two February 2014 accidents: an underground fire on a salt haul truck and an unrelated incident in which a drum of nuclear waste burst, releasing radiation.

The state Environmental Department issued a statement late Wednesday also confirming the placement of the waste.

“For nearly three years, we have held the federal government accountable and ensured that they implemented the corrective actions prescribed…,” said New Mexico Environment Secretary Butch Tongate. “As we move forward, we’re going to continue to closely monitor operations at WIPP to ensure a safe reopening of this critical facility which is so important to our state and to our nation’s security.

“The road ahead includes stronger safety practices, more robust emergency response capabilities, safer transportation routes, and a better facility for our nation, and for all New Mexicans, especially the WIPP workforce.”

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The roof of the salt mine must be constantly bolted back to prevent collapses, and that work has been slow-going, thanks to limited ventilation underground and the need for workers to wear bulky protective gear. A major roof collapse – two-thirds the length of a football field – in one of the disposal rooms has put that room off-limits for now.

Once the facility is filled and closed for good, the salt is supposed to collapse in and seal off the waste permanently.

“What they are doing is very risky,” said Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, a longtime WIPP watchdog group. “There still is a lot of contamination in the underground. Workers have to use protective equipment, which makes it slow and more likely to have problems.”

WIPP officials have said they intend to start slowly, putting small quantities of waste underground while they continue to manage ground control maintenance. Workers were said to have completed the final touches to secure the walls and ceilings in the current disposal area, clearing the way for the waste to be brought underground.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and other officials are expected to celebrate the reopening with a ribbon-cutting event Monday.

Moniz has repeatedly said resuming operations at the repository was a priority for his agency.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant was designed to accept shipments of Cold War-era waste from sites across the nation’s nuclear complex. The waste includes gloves, tools, clothing and other materials from decades of bomb-making and research.

One of those drums – inappropriately packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory – breached due to a chemical reaction and caused the radiation release.

The shutdown put shipments from around the country on indefinite hold as the federal government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into recovery efforts and policy overhauls. The Energy Department also agreed to a multimillion-dollar deal with the state of New Mexico to settle numerous permit violations.

Investigators had said the incident could have been avoided had existing policies and procedures been followed.

It’s still unclear when shipments of waste from other national laboratories and defense sites around the country will resume.

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