A new federal probe may lead to steep penalties for the operator of a nuclear-waste dump where contaminants escaped, the Santa Fe New Mexican reports.
One issue expert said the Energy Department Enforcement Office inquiry into potential procedural breaches at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant "could have implications for the entire contract" held by Nuclear Waste Partnership, the newspaper reported on Tuesday. The firm -- a limited liability company formed by Areva, Babcock & Wilcox and URS -- manages the site for roughly $130 million each year.
"The penalty can be from zero up to some dollar penalties up to ultimately losing the contract," said Don Hancock, head of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque. "This investigation is not going to make that determination, but it can play into some of that determination."
The federal agency informed the firm about the planned probe last week, roughly four months after a vehicle at the site caught fire and a radiation release forced ordinary work at the repository to cease.
"It could be a very big deal, because in my view the investigation should be asking some really hard questions," Hancock added.
New Mexico's state government cannot issue fines larger than $10,000 for each day of an environmental breach, but federal authorities have no such limit, according to the New Mexican.
According to Energy Department spokesman Ben Williams, "WIPP’s federal and contractor workforce will continue the highest level of cooperation and openness to help the Office of Enforcement collect all of the information necessary to complete its investigation."