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Atomic Dump Site Could Be Halted for Years

Specially trained workers prepare last month to enter the tunnels of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, where they are working to identify the cause of a radiation leak. It could be up to three years before the nuclear repository resumes full operations, a senior official said on Thursday. Specially trained workers prepare last month to enter the tunnels of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, where they are working to identify the cause of a radiation leak. It could be up to three years before the nuclear repository resumes full operations, a senior official said on Thursday. (U.S. Energy Department photo)

A federal nuclear waste dump in New Mexico that was shuttered following a February radiation release might not fully reopen for another three years.

Jim Blankenhorn, who is leading the effort to correct problems at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, said at a public meeting on Thursday it would likely be between 18 months and three years before normal operations are resumed at the underground waste repository, the Associated Press reported.

Crews are still descending into the tunnels of the waste site to try to identify the cause of the radiation leak, which contaminated some site personnel in February. Stored radioactive-waste containers that originated at the Los Alamos National Laboratory are the current focus of the investigation.

The halt in operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant comes at a bad time for the U.S. government. The Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration in a recent study of alternatives for disposing of surplus weapons-grade plutonium identified down-blending the fissile material and storing it at the WIPP facility as the least expensive and most technically feasible of possible options.

The department has yet to decide on whether to pursue any of the studied alternatives but has said it intends to eventually mothball its current plutonium disposition effort, which involves the construction of a mixed-oxide fuel facility in South Carolina.

In the wake of the shutdown at the New Mexico dump, Los Alamos for a time was sending its plutonium-contaminated waste to an interim storage site in Texas. Those shipments were stopped earlier this month due to safety concerns, officials said.

The New Mexico government has given the nuclear-weapons laboratory until June 30 -- before peak wildfire season starts -- to remove from its campus the transuranic waste-filled containers it stores above ground.

Los Alamos Director Charlie McMillan on Thursday said the recent events "are very much a cause of concern" but that it was too early to know if they would have an impact on the laboratory's efforts to meet the state's target date.

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