Earlier this year, a violent chemical reaction at a New Mexico facility that stores waste from the making of plutonium bombs broke open a storage drum and sprayed the waste into the air, leading to the closure of the repository.
But the reaction, which forced the closure of the site, came as a blow to the country’s efforts to clean up old nuclear weapons manufacturing sites and has forced the government to take extraordinary measures to prevent a repetition. The reopening of the waste repository will stretch into next year and cost at least $551 million, according to the Energy Department.
The price could jump even higher. The State of New Mexico is nearing a decision on fining the Energy Department for its safety lapses at the repository — the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, N.M. — and at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the plutonium waste was packaged in a way that ultimately led to the accident. The storage drum was one of many filled there as part of a cleanup campaign.
“I don’t know how you can look at the facts themselves or any of the subsequent investigations and not have serious questions about the effectiveness of management and oversight at Los Alamos National Laboratory and WIPP,” said Ryan C. Flynn, the secretary of the Environment Department in New Mexico. His staff is in the unusual position of drafting a proposal to fine the federal government because the Energy Department violated its state environmental permit.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act suggest that the Energy Department does not know what is in many of the waste containers it has filled over the years.
The February leak has also cast doubt on the Energy Department’s safety calculations. Robert Alvarez, a nuclear waste expert and a former special assistant to the energy secretary, said that a safety analysis conducted before the repository opened predicted one such incident every 200,000 years; the mine has been open for 15 years.
“What makes this event so disturbing is that radiation went half a mile up the shaft into the open environment,” he said. Twenty-two workers were exposed to small amounts of radiation.