In a sharp rebuke of the U.S. Department of Energy, the state of New Mexico on Saturday levied $54 million in penalties against the federal agency and private contractors for a series of mistakes and violations that led to a radiation leak that indefinitely shut down the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste.
They were the largest penalties ever imposed by the state on the federal agency. Gov. Susana Martinez and her Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn hand-delivered two major compliance orders outlining the violations to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz during a meeting Saturday morning in Las Vegas, Nev.
“New Mexico is proud of our national labs and cutting-edge scientific facilities, and we have important rules in place to protect those facilities, the people who work there, and all New Mexicans,” Gov. Martinez said in a statement. “The health and safety of New Mexicans will always be our priority and we have to hold federal agencies accountable for safe operations in the state of New Mexico.”
The orders detailed more than 30 violations of state permits surrounding the Feb. 14 leak of a drum of nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. At least 20 workers were contaminated in the accident, and the underground facility was forced to close for what could be several years. Federal officials have estimated it will cost $550 million in repairs before the plant can be reopened.
Emails between the lab, contractors and WIPP gathered during a six-month investigation by The New Mexican revealed that the lab in 2013 took shortcuts in treating at least one particular drum of highly acidic waste, violating its own internal procedures by using acid neutralizers and organic absorbents that created a volatile combination of ingredients that one lab analyst later described as akin to plastic explosives. The lab failed to note the highly acidic nature of the waste or the use of neutralizers in documents accompanying the drum sent to WIPP, and the lab said in those documents that it had used clay-based absorbents rather than the organic variety, which can act as a fuel in the event of a chemical reaction.
Still unanswered in Saturday’s orders is why the lab switched to organic kitty litter in the first place. Speculation inside the lab and at WIPP is that the change came as a result of a typographical error made during a 2012 revision of a LANL manual on handling waste. According to one of the orders, a waste team at WIPP told waste handlers at the lab in 2012 to stop using the organic kitty litter, but that didn’t happen.
Greg Mello of the watchdog group Los Alamos Study Group, said there are a variety of ways the penalties won’t actually be assessed against the Energy Department or the contractors. “The state could accept corrective action in lieu of a fine, which means the contractor will get more work and money to make up for work they didn’t do correctly in the first place,” Mello said. “The contractor could pass on all the fines to the taxpayer. Typically, the contractor is indemnified against everything. Contractors not having to pay for their mistakes is one reason they have so many mistakes.”
Read more, including ongoing investigation, “From LANL to Leak.”