Under New Mexico Desert, Nuclear Dump Is Back at It

After a 3-year hiatus
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 5, 2017 12:33 AM CST
Nuclear Waste Dump Finally Resumes Operations
In this Dec. 8, 2016, file photo, provided by the New Mexico Environment Department, a team of state regulators tour the federal government's only underground nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad, NM.   (AP Photo/New Mexico Environment Department, File)

Employees at the federal government's only underground nuclear waste repository resumed disposal work Wednesday after a nearly three-year hiatus prompted by a radiation release that contaminated a significant portion of the facility, the AP reports. Two pallets of low-level radioactive waste were placed in one of the underground disposal rooms at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico around 12:45pm, the US Energy Department confirmed. The transfer of the drums from an above-ground storage building at the site was first reported by the Carlsbad Current-Argus. "It went great," Rick Fuentes, a local union president and a waste handler at the site, told the newspaper. "We're excited to be back to work."

Fuentes said around 20 to 25 people worked to move the waste into its final resting place, which is carved out of an ancient salt bed some 2,000 feet below the desert surface. The workers included specially trained waste handlers and radiation control technicians. They wore protective clothing and respirators to keep from coming in contact with any contamination, further complicating the effort to move the waste into place. Energy Department officials confirmed to the AP that this was the first cycle of operations since authorization to resume work was given by federal officials on Dec. 23. US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and other officials are expected to celebrate the reopening with a ribbon-cutting event Monday. Click for more on the radiation release that shut operations down. (More nuclear waste stories.)

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