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Crews to Re-Enter Site of New Mexico Nuclear-Waste Leak

Miners work at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico in 2007. Personnel are expected this week to re-enter the site's underground area to hunt for the source of a February contamination leak. Miners work at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico in 2007. Personnel are expected this week to re-enter the site's underground area to hunt for the source of a February contamination leak. (U.S. Energy Department photo)

Crews are preparing to descend this week into a nuclear-waste entombment site to find the origin of a contamination leak, the Associated Press reports.

The operation would mark the initial human movement into subterranean sections of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant since warning systems detected airborne radioactive particles in the facility's corridors on Feb. 14, the wire service reported on Saturday. Personnel would begin hunting for the breach that allowed the leak, once they establish an operating post near an underground chute and examine an attached ventilation passage, according to the Energy Department.

Nearly three dozen staffers took part in practice activities at a separate underground facility, DOE officials indicated. Preparations addressed a range of possible events in the New Mexico facility, and insiders said that one 120-minute exercise involved the use of gas masks and other protection gear.

Meanwhile, the state's environmental agency canceled an initial authorization to increase the waste site's capacity, AP reported separately on Saturday. In explaining its decision, the New Mexico Environment Department referenced last month's radiation release, as well as a subterranean fire that also hit the facility in February.

"Just as NMED needs more information to make informed decisions on permit modifications, the public also needs more information about the radiation release," the agency said. "Once NMED has all of our questions answered, we will proceed with consideration of a revised draft permit."

The license would enable two new waste-storage areas to hold contaminated materials, including equipment and clothes, according to Reuters.

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