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Flynn accuses feds of blocking WIPP probe via Santa Fe/New Mexican

New Mexico’s top environmental regulator lashed out at the U.S. Department of Energy this week, accusing it of impeding the state’s investigation into the circumstances that led to a radiation leak earlier this year at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

During his keynote speech to an audience representing federal agencies, industry, academia, national labs and all levels of government at the annual Radwaste Summit in Summerlin, Nev., New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn warned that Los Alamos National Laboratory and WIPP could face steeper sanctions from the state because of what he characterized as Energy Department roadblocks that have protracted the probe.

“The problem is that Department of Energy headquarters back in Washington, D.C., is looking at this situation through a political or [public relations] lens, so they’ve put a noose around the scientific personnel who can answer our questions and move this process along,” Flynn told The New Mexican.

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A Los Alamos spokesman referred questions to Energy Department officials on Friday.

In a written statement responding to Flynn’s criticisms, a department spokesperson said: “The department is fully committed to reopening WIPP, and will continue to work with the state of New Mexico to do so safely and as expeditiously as possible.”

Greg Mello, executive director of the watchdog organization Los Alamos Study Group, echoed Flynn’s angst that the Energy Department hasn’t openly shared details with regulators about the radiation leak and the waste suspected of causing it.

“Anything else is a sign of a poor safety culture and could be a danger signal for workers and the public,” Mello said. “Mislabeling drums and withholding information can be criminal. That’s one way serious accidents can happen.”

Already, regulatory penalties from the state are likely for both Los Alamos and WIPP, according to Flynn. Potential penalties range from fines to suspension of operations at the sites.

At Los Alamos, treating waste without a permit and labeling waste as less volatile than it actually is, then shipping it to WIPP are among the violations already identified, and WIPP, at a minimum, faces regulatory action for failing to verify the volatility of the waste before accepting it.

“The more we investigate, the more we’re discovering at Los Alamos,” Flynn said.

The state’s first sanctions against the permit-holders could be meted out within the next 60 days, Flynn said. Regulatory actions against LANL and WIPP are likely to be imposed in a series of steps, as each of the violations is verified.

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