Radiation Leak Lends Uncertainty to Future of Nuclear Waste Dump

Transuranic nuclear-waste containers in Washington state await shipment in 2006 to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. It remains uncertain how the United States will handle nuclear-arms waste if leaked radioactive contaminants continue to limit access to the storage facility.
Transuranic nuclear-waste containers in Washington state await shipment in 2006 to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. It remains uncertain how the United States will handle nuclear-arms waste if leaked radioactive contaminants continue to limit access to the storage facility. (Jeff Green/Getty Images)

It is unclear how the United States will handle remnants of past nuclear-arms production following recent incidents at its sole burial site in New Mexico.

Federal administrators, contractor operators and political figures said it is too early to consider possible consequences of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant's closure after the detection of escaped contaminants in and around the facility this month, the Associated Press reported.

Overseers have suggested it may be at least weeks before personnel can re-enter the subterranean area of the site, where 13 workers were apparently exposed to radiation.

The halt in operations -- which also came shortly after an unprecedented but apparently unrelated fire -- has forced the suspension of all waste transfers to the site near Carlsbad, N.M.

Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said there is a "paramount" need to rapidly finish shipping almost 4,000 waste tanks away from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the materials came under threat from wildfires in 2011. He added it is still too soon to begin examining other potential destinations for the materials, which are slated for removal from the Los Alamos complex before July.

Separately, developments at the waste site have placed on hold a proposal for the facility to receive substances deemed more hazardous, AP reported.

The president of the facility's managing contractor said "a lot of people are just jumping up and down and wanting us to shut down." He added, though, that those calls are unwarranted.

"We've designed this facility to look at these types of accidents and we've planned on making sure that we continue to protect our employees and we protect the environment. And our system worked as designed," said Farok Sharif, who heads the private Nuclear Waste Partnership.

Additional tests are necessary to determine any medical implications for 13 exposed workers exposed to radiation at the site, AP quoted site managers as saying at a Thursday press event.

February 28, 2014
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It is unclear how the United States will handle remnants of past nuclear-arms production following recent incidents at its sole burial site in New Mexico.

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