When a drum containing radioactive waste blew up in an underground nuclear dump in New Mexico two years ago, the Energy Department rushed to quell concerns in the Carlsbad desert community and quickly reported progress on resuming operations.
The early federal statements gave no hint that the blast had caused massive long-term damage to the dump, a facility crucial to the nuclear weapons cleanup program that spans the nation, or that it would jeopardize the Energy Department’s credibility in dealing with the tricky problem of radioactive waste.
But the explosion ranks among the costliest nuclear accidents in U.S. history, according to a Times analysis. The long-term cost of the mishap could top $2 billion, an amount roughly in the range of the cleanup after the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.
Washington state officials were recently forced to accept delays in moving the equivalent of 24,000 drums of nuclear waste from Hanford site to the New Mexico dump. The deal has further antagonized the relationship between the state and federal regulators.
Other states are no less insistent. The Energy Department has agreed to move the equivalent of nearly 200,000 drums from Idaho National Laboratory by 2018.
The dump, officially known as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, was designed to place waste from nuclear weapons production since World War II into ancient salt beds, which engineers say will collapse around the waste and permanently seal it. The equivalent of 277,000 drums of radioactive waste is headed to the dump, according to federal documents.
The dump was dug much like a conventional mine, with vertical shafts and a maze of horizontal drifts. It had operated problem-free for 15 years and was touted by the Energy Department as a major success until the explosion, which involved a drum of of plutonium and americium waste that had been packaged at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The problem was traced to material — actual kitty litter — used to blot up liquids in sealed drums. Lab officials had decided to substitute an organic material for a mineral one. But the new material caused a complex chemical reaction that blew the lid off a drum, sending mounds of white, radioactive foam into the air and contaminating 35% of the underground area.
The Hanford site stores the equivalent of 24,000 drums of waste that must be inspected every week. “You have to make sure nothing leaks,” he said.
The cleanup of the Three Mile Island plant took 12 years and was estimated to cost $1 billion by 1993, or $1.7 billion adjusted for inflation today. The estimate did not include the cost of replacing the power the shut-down plant was no longer generating.
Other radioactive contamination at nuclear weapons sites is costing tens of billions of dollars to clean up, but it is generally the result of deliberate practices such as dumping radioactive waste into the ground.
For now, workers entering contaminated areas must wear protective gear, including respirators, the Energy Department spokesperson said. She noted that the size of the restricted area had been significantly reduced earlier this year.
Hancock suggested that the dump might never resume full operations.
“The facility was never designed to operate in a contaminated state,” he said. “It was supposed to open clean and stay clean, but now it will have to operate dirty. Nobody at the Energy Department wants to consider the potential that it isn’t fixable.”
Giving up on the New Mexico dump would have huge environmental, legal and political ramifications. This year the Energy Department decided to dilute 6 metric tons of surplus plutonium in South Carolina and send it to the dump, potentially setting a precedent for disposing of bomb-grade materials. The U.S. has agreements with Russia on mutual reductions of plutonium.