ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A section of the federal government's only underground nuclear waste repository would be permanently sealed under a plan announced Thursday during a public meeting aimed at addressing concerns about a recent series of ceiling collapses at the troubled facility in southern New Mexico.
While expected by engineers and geologists, the collapses have fueled the concerns of watchdogs who want the federal government to ensure safety at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant before moving ahead with plans to reopen the repository before the end of the year.
A radiation release forced the closure of the repository in February 2014. Since then, tons of waste left over from decades of nuclear weapon research and development have been stacking up at sites around the country, hampering the government's multibillion-dollar cleanup program.
The waste is meant to be entombed in storage rooms carved out of a thick salt formation deep underground. Geologic forces cause the salt to creep or move, with it eventually encapsulating and sealing the waste.
Contamination from the radiation release has complicated the maintenance work needed to secure the salt rock walls and ceilings of the repository, officials said.
"What used to be a typical, easy thing to go do to maintain that ground is much more difficult because of the fact that you have to wear your protective equipment, your protective clothing and a respirator," said John VandeKraats, the underground operations manager for Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that manages the facility.
Crews also have to carry additional equipment to gauge air quality and radiological contamination. Vandekraats said that has reduced productivity by more than half over the last two years.
There have been at least three collapses in recent weeks. In one case, chunks of salt dislodged from the ceiling and tore through chain link fencing that was meant to help stabilize a corridor. There were no injuries.
Given the conditions, Department of Energy Carlsbad Field Office manager Todd Shrader outlined plans Thursday for closing off the south end of the underground storage area.
He said barriers would be built to seal off the area from other parts of the underground complex, eliminating about 60 percent of the areas that were contaminated by the 2014 radiation release.
Shrader also acknowledged that the closure would eliminate some of the space that could have been used in the future for storing more waste.
He said shipments will be slow once work resumes, and officials expect the two existing storage vaults to provide ample space for a number of years.
Don Hancock with the Albuquerque-based watchdog group Southwest Research and Information Center said the ceiling collapses are no surprise but they raise questions about whether the repository will be ready to reopen in December. He suggested more collapses could stir up contamination and threaten workers.
Despite waste shipments being on hold, Hancock said there have been no incidents at the sites where the waste is currently being stored. "There is no crisis. Your worst case is not delaying the reopening of WIPP but reopening and having another accident," he said.
Investigators determined the radiation release that forced the indefinite closure of the repository could have been prevented. They found that poor management at multiple levels, lapses in safety and a lack of proper procedures combined to cause the release.
A container of inappropriately packed waste that had been shipped from Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico to the repository for permanent storage was the source of the release. A chemical reaction inside the container caused it to rupture.