ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The contractor that runs the federal government's underground nuclear waste repository is being denied millions of dollars in performance pay as part of the financial fallout from a radiation leak that forced the closure of the facility.
Federal officials have said it could take years and a half-billion dollars to restart operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project Plant near Carlsbad because of the February leak.
The U.S. Energy Department said in documents released Tuesday that it is paying Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC just $21,576 of the $8 million of potential performance incentives for the past fiscal year. The partnership manages the plant under a contract that pays more than $140 million annually.
The leak occurred when a container packed with radioactive waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory ruptured in an underground storage area and contaminated more than 20 workers.
The performance award for Nuclear Waste Partnership was announced one day after the DOE's National Nuclear Security Administration docked the contractor that runs Los Alamos lab for its failures related to the radiation leak. The lab contractor received $6.25 million in incentives, just a fraction of the more than $63 million that was possible for the last fiscal year.
Both contractors and the DOE are also facing $54 million in penalties levied by the New Mexico Environment Department, and state officials have said more fines are possible as the investigation into the radiation leak continues.
Recovery efforts at the nuclear repository did get a $104 million boost as part of a federal spending package signed by President Barack Obama in December. That was on top of the original request of $220 million for operations.
Don Hancock of the watchdog group Southwest Information and Research Center said he's frustrated that operational funding for the plant will continue even as waste disposal there has stopped.
"The contractors are too big and too important to fail," Hancock told the Santa Fe New Mexican (http://bit.ly/1xgmjTH). "The Department of Energy is so dependent on the contractors that the contractors always get off without really getting penalties. They're able to underperform and still get rewarded."
Hancock also said he doubts the plant will meet the first two deadlines in its recovery plan — the New Year's Day target for closure of one of the storage bunkers affected by the radiation leak and March recertification of the repository by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Officials at the repository did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the deadlines. However, a DOE spokesman said the performance pay announced for the contractor on Tuesday was preliminary, and the contractor could qualify for more incentive payments.