Green Guide

Officials set to repackage radioactive waste in New Mexico

Posted 5:39 p.m. Thursday
Updated 5:41 p.m. Thursday

— Isolated in a temperature-controlled storage area at one of the nation's premiere nuclear weapons laboratories, dozens of containers of radioactive waste similar to one that ruptured in 2014 remain under 24-hour surveillance, awaiting treatment so they can be stabilized and disposed of.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced this week that treatment of the 60 containers is expected to begin next spring following a series of safety assessments and upgrades to the building where the work will be performed.

New Mexico regulators signed off on the treatment plan earlier this year. The state and the head of the Energy Department's environmental management office at the lab have described the process as calculated and methodical.

"We are confident in our ability to execute these operations in a safe and efficient manner," Doug Hintze, manager of the Environmental Management Field Office at Los Alamos, said in a statement Wednesday.

The work is one step in a yearslong effort to get the federal government's multibillion-dollar cleanup program back on track at Los Alamos and other installations around the country where decades of Cold War-era waste — from gloves and tools to clothing and other material —have piled up.

The shipment of that waste to an underground disposal facility in southern New Mexico was put on indefinite hold in February 2014 when a container sent from Los Alamos to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant breached, contaminating a significant portion of the underground storage area.

The chemical reaction that caused the breach was spurred by organic cat litter put in the containers to absorb moisture.

Investigators determined the lab failed to follow protocols and procedures that would have prevented the inappropriate packing of the containers.

The incident resulted in an overhaul of policies, costly work to mitigate the contamination, and a multimillion-dollar settlement with the state of New Mexico for numerous permit violations.

The Energy Department had hoped to resume some work at the Waste Isolation Plant by the end of the year. But the agency still needs to submit a readiness report to state regulators for review and an onsite inspection needs to be done.

Even if the site is cleared to begin moving waste into the underground, state officials say shipments will be sent slowly before they are ramped up.

"There's not going to be huge amounts of waste coming into New Mexico from other sites. They're going to have to walk before they run for sure," New Mexico Environment Secretary Butch Tongate said in a recent interview.

As for the containers at Los Alamos, the treatment process will involve adding water and inert material to prevent any reactions. Over nearly three years of constant monitoring, officials say they have not detected anything that would warrant concern.

All of the work will be done inside an enclosed box in a specially engineered building with filters. Technicians will handle the waste only through gloved ports.

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