Nuclear dump leak raises questions about cleanup

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FILE – This undated file aerial photo shows the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. Back-to-back accidents and a never-supposed-to-happen above-ground radiation release have shuttered the federal government’s only deep underground nuclear waste dump indefinitely, raising questions about a cornerstone of the Department of Energy’s $5 billion-a year-program for cleaning up legacy waste scattered across the country from decades of nuclear bomb making. Thirteen workers have tested positive for radiation exposure after a recent leak. (AP Photo/Carlsbad Current Argus, File)

FILE – This undated file aerial photo shows the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M. Back-to-back accidents and a never-supposed-to-happen above-ground radiation release have shuttered the federal government’s only deep underground nuclear waste dump indefinitely, raising questions about a cornerstone of the Department of Energy’s $5 billion-a year-program for cleaning up legacy waste scattered across the country from decades of nuclear bomb making. Thirteen workers have tested positive for radiation exposure after a recent leak. (AP Photo/Carlsbad Current Argus, File)

In this Feb. 24, 2014 photo, a member of the community speaks of the Feb. 14, 2014 radiation leak during a community meeting in Carlsbad, N.M. New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall says he will ask the Environmental Protection Agency to send air monitors to southeastern New Mexico following a radiation release from the federal government’s underground nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad. Udall says he will send a letter Thursday requesting the portable monitors. Udall says the health and safety of the community and workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are his top priority. The EPA has regulatory authority over the site and any airborne radiation releases. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing)

This Feb. 24, 2014 photo shows the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M. Officials held a news conference to discuss preliminary test results that indicate 13 workers worker were exposed to radiation during a leak Feb. 14, 2014, from the nation’s first underground nuclear waste dump. New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall says he will ask the Environmental Protection Agency to send air monitors to southeastern New Mexico following a radiation release from the federal government’s underground nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad. Udall says he will send a letter Thursday requesting the portable monitors. Udall says the health and safety of the community and workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are his top priority. The EPA has regulatory authority over the site and any airborne radiation releases. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing)

In this Feb. 24, 2014 photo, Farok Sharif, president of the Nuclear Waste Partnership speaks during a community meeting in Carlsbad, N.M. New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall says he will ask the Environmental Protection Agency to send air monitors to southeastern New Mexico following a radiation release from the federal government’s underground nuclear waste dump near Carlsbad. Udall says he will send a letter Thursday requesting the portable monitors. Udall says the health and safety of the community and workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant are his top priority. The EPA has regulatory authority over the site and any airborne radiation releases. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing)

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CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — For 15 years the trucks have barreled past southeastern New Mexico’s potash mines and seemingly endless fields of oil rigs, hauling decades worth of plutonium-contaminated waste to what is supposed to be a safe and final resting place a half mile underground in the salt beds of the Permian Basin.

But back-to-back accidents and a never-supposed-to-happen above-ground radiation release have shuttered the federal government’s only deep underground nuclear waste dump indefinitely, raising questions about a cornerstone of the Department of Energy’s $5-billion-a-year program for cleaning up legacy waste scattered across the country from decades of nuclear bomb making.

It also highlights a lack of alternatives for disposing of tainted materials like tools, gloves, glasses and protective suits from national labs in Idaho, Illinois, South Carolina and New Mexico.

With operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on hold, so are all shipments, including the last of nearly 4,000 barrels of toxic waste that Los Alamos National Laboratories has been ordered to remove from its campus by the end of June. The presence of that waste, some of which was dug up from decades-old, unsealed dumps in the northern New Mexico mountains and is now stored outside with little protection, came to the public’s attention three years ago as a massive wildfire lapped at the edges of the sprawling lab property.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., says getting the rest of the waste off the mesa before wildfire season begins is “paramount,” but that it is too soon to know if a temporary alternative site for storing the waste needs to be found.

Also on hold are tests to see if the dump can expand its mission to take more than so-called lower level transuranic waste from the nation’s research facilities, including hopes by DOE that it can ship hotter, liquid waste from leaking tanks at Washington state’s Hanford nuclear waste site.

New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the state will be looking closely at what caused the leak that exposed at least 13 workers and sent radiation into the air around the plant before deciding whether to back plans to allow the repository to bring in waste from new sources.

“Events like this should never occur,” he said at a news conference last week where officials confirmed the leak. “From the state’s perspective, one event is far too many.”

Government officials, politicians, the contractors that run the mine and local officials all say it is too soon to speculate on what the short- or long-term impacts of the of the shutdown might be, or where else the toxic waste would go. And they emphasize that all the safety systems designed to react to worst-case scenarios like a ceiling collapse or forklift puncturing one of the huge waste canisters worked.

“A lot of people are just jumping up and down and wanting us

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