7,000 steps are needed to reopen damaged nuclear waste dump in N.M., officials say
Cost of N.M. nuclear waste dump accident could approach $1 billion
The Energy Department has identified 7,000 steps needed to reopen its badly damaged nuclear waste dump in New Mexico, but cannot say how long it will take or how much it will cost.
The agency was expected to release a written recovery plan Thursday, but instead provided a few details about the plan, which awaits formal approval by the department.
Outside experts say that the dump will probably not reopen until well after the start of 2016 and that the cost of the accident will approach $1 billion.
The dump experienced two accidents earlier this year. First, a large fire broke out on a mining truck inside the mine, 2,150 feet below the surface. Shortly thereafter, a waste drum ruptured, releasing radioactivity that contaminated a significant part of the mine. Some material traveled up ventilation shafts to the surface, where 21 workers were exposed, according to an accident investigation.
The investigation so far has not explained why the drum ruptured, nor what chemicals were inside. The drum was packaged at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
The mine has been shut since early February, causing a backup of nuclear waste at Energy Department weapons labs and cleanup sites across the nation.
In addition, the Energy Department must drill a new ventilation shaft, repair a broken waste hoist, clean up debris and soot, stabilize the mine walls that have gone unattended for nine months, put new batteries in vehicles, install a new ventilation system, erect a bulkhead to seal off the room with the ruptured drum and seal surfaces that are contamined with radioactive dust, Blankenhorn said.
Once recovery operations begin underground, the existing damaged ventilation system will allow only two diesel-powered vehicles to operate at the same time in the mine. That will limit how fast work can proceed.
The sealing plan involves spraying the surfaces with water so that the salt melts and encapsulates the waste. Then the surface must be covered with two layers of material and, atop that, another layer of clean salt.
Even if the dump reopens by then, the two-year shutdown would have consumed two years’ worth of the annual budget for the operation, amounting to about $400 million, and at least another $300 million of additional appropriations that have been discussed for repairs.
But that is unlikely to cover the full cost of the repairs, Hancock said. In addition, tons of waste are backing up across the nation, forcing laboratories and other cleanup sites to store radioactive material longer, at an unspecified cost.
Related article: Concern over another WIPP drum via Albuquerque Journal