Energy secretary to visit troubled nuke dump

August 11, 2014 - 7:04 PM

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz traveled to southeastern New Mexico on Monday to visit the government's troubled nuclear waste dump and talk with residents about the mysterious radiation leak and truck fire that have shuttered the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant indefinitely.

About a dozen community leaders and residents were at the Carlsbad airport to welcome Moniz and show their continued support for the plant, which is the federal government's only permanent repository for waste from decades of nuclear bomb building and employs about 650 people.

Moniz was scheduled to attend a town hall meeting Monday evening and visit the surface areas of the half-mile deep mine on Tuesday morning. The Department of Energy and the contractor that operates the site have been holding regular meetings with the community since the back-to-back accidents closed the plant in February.

Officials have yet to pinpoint what caused a barrel of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory to leak in one of the mine's rooms on Feb. 14, contaminating 22 above-ground workers with low levels of radiation. One theory has focused on a chemical reaction in highly acidic waste containing a lead-based glove that was packed with organic cat litter to absorb moisture.

Nine days before the release, a truck hauling salt in the mine caught fire. But officials have said the fire was far from the waste-handling area and that the events were likely unrelated.

Initial investigations into both accidents have blamed a slow erosion of the safety culture at the 15-year-old, multibillion-dollar site. Officials are also investigating how Los Alamos handled the waste it sent to the plant, and whether a switch from inorganic to organic cat litter played in a role in fueling a heat reaction.

During a meeting on renewable energy in Santa Fe earlier Monday, Moniz said the department is committed to getting the plant re-opened as soon as possible.

"It's very important to talk to the community and certainly reaffirm our absolute commitment to trying to get operations established as soon as we can, safely," he said. "We think we're making real progress toward understanding the situation, and I can assure you we share, we have a complete self-interest at the Department of Energy to get operations re-established just as the community and the state do."

The indefinite closing of the repository has delayed cleanup of legacy waste like contaminated gloves, tools and clothing across the federal government's nuclear complex.

Los Alamos, for example, was under orders from the state to remove thousands of barrels of toxic waste from outdoor storage on a mesa before wildfire season peaked this summer. The presence of that waste, and its potential dangers, came to light three summers ago as a massive wildfire lapped at the edge of lab property.

"Obviously, we want to finish the job that we were so close to finishing (at Los Alamos)," Moniz said. "But we also have Idaho, we have Savannah River so this is a very, very high priority and I want to get down there, see it and talk to people."

Moniz estimated it will be a year to 18 months before the plant can be reopened.