ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico regulators have approved restarting normal operations at the nation's only underground nuclear waste repository, a major step for U.S. officials aiming to reopen the facility nearly three years after a radiation leak shut it down indefinitely.
Two letters obtained Thursday by The Associated Press outline the state Environment Department's findings from a recent inspection of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
Regulators found two minor permit violations that were addressed immediately, but watchdog groups questioned whether the state's decision was predetermined given the push by the U.S. Energy Department to reopen the site before year's end.
The repository has been closed since a radiation release in February 2014 contaminated much of the underground disposal area and brought to light gaps in management and oversight.
The leak stemmed from a chemical reaction inside a container of waste that was inappropriately packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Investigators determined it could have been avoided had existing policies not been ignored.
With shipments on hold, tons of Cold War-era nuclear waste — from gloves and tools to clothing and other material — have been piling up at national laboratories and other defense installations across the country.
The backup has compromised the government's multibillion-dollar cleanup campaign and led to an overhaul of procedures across the nuclear complex.
Mitigating the contamination at the site in southeastern New Mexico is expected to cost more than a half-billion dollars, which does not include costs stemming from a multimillion-dollar settlement with the state for numerous permit violations.
New Mexico officials have said repeatedly that their review was thorough and that the state had a responsibility to ensure the Energy Department and the contractor that runs the repository addressed the numerous violations and deficiencies revealed by the radiation release.
"We value our federal facilities and appreciate the hard work and cooperation of the workforce, leadership and the broader Carlsbad community as the WIPP facility approaches full readiness to safely reopen," state Environment Secretary Butch Tongate said in a statement.
All provisions of the settlement with the state will remain in effect until they are fulfilled, Kathryn Roberts, director of New Mexico's Resource Protection Division, wrote in one of the letters sent last week to federal officials.
The state also noted that the repository must monitor for volatile compounds when they begin moving waste into underground disposal rooms.
While state approval is key to restarting work at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, federal officials still need to address numerous issues identified as part of a separate readiness review done by Energy Department experts from around the country.
Work at the facility will not resume until corrective actions are completed and validated by the department, agency spokeswoman Bridget Bartol said Thursday. Officials say progress is being made but could not provide a date.
Don Hancock, director of the nuclear waste safety program at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, said the state should have looked closer at the implications of inadequate ventilation and the accuracy of air monitoring underground to ensure worker safety.
He also pointed to a recent federal report that found vulnerabilities in the facility's radiological protection program and separate deficiencies recorded by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Rushing to reopen could increase the potential for future problems, Hancock said.
"There is no crisis that requires it to be reopened by the end of the year, as they keep talking about, and workers are working seven days a week," he said. "Typically what happens when people are being overworked is they get tired, they get careless and they're more prone to accidents."
Energy officials acknowledged during a town hall last week that employees were working around the clock to address the issues needed to reopen but said that doing it safely was a priority.