Nuclear Waste Mishandling: U.S. Energy Agency Fined $54 Million By New Mexico After Radiation Release

Several safety violations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the Chihuahuan Desert just outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico, has caused the facility to shut down indefinitely. In addition to the shut down, New Mexico has fined the U.S. Energy Agency $54 million for nuclear waste mishandling.

Reuters reports that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is where waste from U.S. nuclear labs and weapons sites is entombed in a salt mine 2,100 feet underground. However, the plant has been closed since a February 14 radiological release which contaminated disposal chambers and exposed 22 workers to low levels of radiation. The radiation leak happened after an improperly packaged container from Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe that was deposited in a salt cavern at the dump. A reaction took place inside of the container, causing the seals to melt and release radiation.

The radiation leak occurred one week after an improperly maintained salt truck caught fire at the plant. With the two incidents occurring back-to-back, the plant was shut down until the site could be decontaminated and proven safe. However, New Mexico officials have determined that the U.S. Energy Agency is responsible for 37 violations of its hazardous waste permits. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez notes that the safety of New Mexico is more important than any disposal program.

“The health and safety of New Mexicans will always be our priority and we have to hold federal agencies accountable for safe operations in the state.”

However, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz notes that the reopening of the plant is “a top priority.” The Isolation Pilot Plant is the nation’s only underground nuclear-waste repository and “a core facility for the country.”

The Columbus Dispatch reports that the fine is the state’s largest penalty ever imposed on the agency, but this could just be the tip of the iceberg of what is to come. The report notes that the orders and the civil penalties that come with them are just the beginning of possible financial sanctions the Energy Department could face in New Mexico. The fines will come in addition to the money needed for cleanup efforts. The cleanup efforts for the plant are expected to exceed $240 million to ensure a safe environment for workers at the site.

The U.S. Energy Agency has pointed out that the facility of utmost importance for disposal of nuclear waste, and the closing of the facility is putting in jeopardy efforts to clean up tons of Cold War-era waste. However, New Mexico environment secretary Ryan Flynn says that the disposal effort shouldn’t come at the expense of the environment.

“New Mexico does not need to choose between fulfilling the laboratory’s mission and protecting the environment.”

Do you think the Feds owe New Mexico for the improper handling of nuclear waste at the isolation plant?