The Energy Department tied a radiation leak in New Mexico to a damaged nuclear-waste drum found in underground storage, the Associated Press reports.
The container -- discovered at the federally overseen Waste Isolation Pilot Plant -- has an unsealed cover and signs of deterioration from high temperatures, officials said on Friday. The finding appeared to confirm recently discussed suspicions that a container from Los Alamos National Laboratory was responsible for the February leak, which spread contaminants to at least 21 workers and forced a halt to normal operations at the facility.
The revelation also underlined worries about the reliability of other nuclear-waste containers packaged at the Los Alamos laboratory, according to AP. The concerns last week prompted administrators to pause shipments of materials from Los Alamos to an interim storage site in Texas.
"While many details remain unknown ... additional investigative work is being planned to pinpoint the cause of the breached drum, the radiological release, and whether other containers were involved in the release," Charles McMillan, who heads the New Mexico research site, said in a statement to personnel.
"Experts from [the Energy Department], WIPP, Los Alamos, and Savannah River National Laboratory are working together to establish the range of possibilities that may have caused this event," he said.
McMillan downplayed the likelihood of "any imminent threat" to workers, the environment or nearby populations. However, one independent observer questioned the laboratory director's comment.
"We can't have assurances" until investigators gather additional details about the leak, said Don Hancock, director of the Nuclear Waste Safety Program at the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque.