ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Wednesday that his department is committed to reopening the federal government's underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico.
Moniz made assurances to members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee during a hearing Wednesday in Washington, D.C., that resuming operations at the troubled facility would be done with worker safety in mind.
"We're doing all that we can," Moniz said. "At the very beginning, I insisted that we not set schedules before we understood what the issues were. Otherwise, safety could be comprised."
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, is the government's only permanent repository for radioactive waste such as contaminated gloves, tools and clothing from decades of building nuclear bombs.
It was a container of waste originally packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory that breached in one of the nuclear dump's underground storage rooms on Feb. 14, 2014. It caused a release of radiation that contaminated 22 workers and forced the repository to close indefinitely.
Moniz said the Department of Energy has a plan for sealing two of the storage rooms at the nuclear dump and for looking at the other barrels that contain some of the same elements that were blamed for the thermal reaction that caused the breach.
"We need to keep going as fast as we can to make sure that all of those other barrels are safe," he said.
The New Mexico Environment Department has levied $54 million in fines against the Department of Energy and its contractors over failures that led to the radiation release. The department has appealed, and some federal officials have suggested that the fines would have to be paid out of the lab and repository's operating budgets.
Critics — including community leaders in Los Alamos and Carlsbad — say the fines should not be paid out of funds that would otherwise go toward cleanup work.
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., echoed those concerns during Tuesday's hearing and said a costly, long-lasting legal battle needed to be avoided.
"I want to remind you as discussions continue that this is a unique situation," Udall told Moniz. "You're dealing with the only state in the union that's ever accepted a nuclear waste facility."
Moniz answered that he's hopeful the Department of Energy and the state can reach an agreement.
Of the department's nearly $30 billion budget request for the next fiscal year, Moniz said about $5.8 billion would go toward environmental management programs. That's equal to last year's appropriation.
Some senators questioned Moniz about projects that have gone over budget and are behind schedule and whether the lack of an increase in environmental dollars next year could threaten cleanup work at the Hanford site in Washington state and elsewhere.
Moniz acknowledged that significant challenges remain in dealing with legacy waste around the country, but the agency has succeeded in cleaning up 85 percent of its sites.