New Mexico nuke storage plant cleared to reopen 3 years after accident

A member of a recovery teams obtains samples from inside the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on May 30, 2014, more than three months after a drum of nuclear waste ruptured and exposed part of the facility to toxic radiation. The U.S. Department of Energy said Friday that regulators have approved the plant to partly reopen next month after extensive review and safety evaluation. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

ALBUQUERQUE, Dec. 24 (UPI) — A nuclear waste storage facility in New Mexico will resume some operations as early as next month — nearly three years after it closed following an accident that contaminated the facility with radiation, officials said Friday.

The U.S. Department of Energy said Friday the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeast New Mexico has been approved by regulators to resume at least some of its operations.

The plant was closed after a February 2014 incident in which a drum of nuclear waste ruptured, exposing part of the facility to toxic radiation.

“Safety has and will continue to be our number one priority,” Energy Department spokeswoman Bridget Bartol said.

“Tremendous credit should go to the WIPP workers for what we have accomplished this year,” Phil Breidenbach, president and project manager for Nuclear Waste Partnership, said in a statement Friday.

The WIPP, located 25 miles east of Carlsbad and 245 miles southeast of Albuquerque, is a burial ground for nuclear waste materials from all over the United States. No workers were underground at the time of the accident but several above ground received small doses of radiation.

More than 170,000 containers of waste are stored at the site, which began operating in 1999 and is overseen by the Energy Department. It was created specifically to house nuclear waste from the country’s atomic weapons program.

The Energy Department has been trying to reopen the plant for months and had at one time targeted a December date. Now, they anticipate at least some resumed operations to occur next month.

Rick Fuentes, president of the United Steelworkers union chapter at WIPP, said he has discussed pushing back the reopen date with government officials to accommodate worker safety.

“Our main concern was the safety of the workers down there, and the condition of the underground,” he said. “If we’re not gonna meet a deadline, we’re not gonna meet a deadline. The deadlines to [workers] don’t mean anything. What good is a deadline if someone gets hurt along the way?”

Ten days before the 2014 drum rupture, six workers were taken to a hospital after a haul truck caught fire underground and prompted an evacuation. Both incidents caused some to question WIPP’s status as a safe nuclear waste repository — particularly since the federal government had designated it to be the primary U.S. storage site after reluctance to develop Yucca Mountain, Nevada, into a nuclear burial site.


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