ALBUQUERQUE — A section of the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository would be permanently sealed under a plan announced Thursday during a public meeting aimed at addressing concerns about a recent series of ceiling collapses at the troubled facility in Southern New Mexico.
While expected by engineers and geologists, the collapses have fueled the concerns of watchdogs who want the federal government to ensure safety at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant before moving ahead with plans to reopen the repository before the end of the year.
A radiation release forced the closure of the repository in February 2014. Since then, tons of waste left over from decades of nuclear weapon research and development have been stacking up at sites around the country, hampering the government’s multibillion-dollar cleanup program.
The waste is meant to be entombed in storage rooms carved out of a thick salt formation deep underground. Geologic forces cause the salt to creep or move, with it eventually encapsulating and sealing the waste.
Contamination from the radiation release has complicated the maintenance work needed to secure the salt rock walls and ceilings of the repository, officials said.
“What used to be a typical, easy thing to go do to maintain that ground is much more difficult because of the fact that you have to wear your protective equipment, your protective clothing and a respirator,” said John VandeKraats, the underground operations manager for Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that manages the facility.
Crews also have to carry additional equipment to gauge air quality and radiological contamination. Vandekraats said that has reduced productivity by more than half over the last two years.
There have been at least three collapses in recent weeks. In one case, chunks of salt dislodged from the ceiling and tore through chain link fencing that was meant to help stabilize a corridor. There were no injuries.