US, New Mexico ink $74 million in settlements over nuclear radiation leak

New Mexico and the U.S. Department of Energy inked $74 million in settlements over dozens of permit violations stemming from a radiation leak that forced the closure of the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository.

The settlements are the largest ever negotiated between a state and the Energy Department and come after months of negotiations. The agreements were first outlined last spring, but their signing was delayed by disagreements over some of the details.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico has been closed since February 2014, when a container of waste burst and released radiation in the underground facility. Twenty-two workers were exposed, and monitors at the surface recorded low levels of radiological contamination, but officials said nearby communities were not at risk.

Investigators determined that the container had been improperly packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and experts have said the incident could have been avoided.

The settlements call for the Energy Department to funnel millions of dollars toward road improvements and environmental projects in New Mexico. The state initially proposed more than $54 million in penalties against the federal agency and its contractors for numerous violations at the lab and waste dump.

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn called the settlements unprecedented and said they represent a “good deal” for the state.

“We’re here because of problems that occurred at WIPP and were caused in large part due to failures up at (Los Alamos),” Flynn said. “I prefer to have avoided this entire situation altogether and focus on other things related to these facilities, but they had some major problems and we’re finally on the path to recovery.”

Flynn said his staff has been working with the Energy Department and its contractors, poring over the findings of the numerous investigations and inspections done over the past two years to ensure a similar incident does not happen again.

The state agency’s work also includes revamping a cleanup order and setting new deadlines for Los Alamos to remove barrels of radioactive waste from its property in northern New Mexico.

Los Alamos has faced its own delays in trying to clean up waste like contaminated gloves, tools and clothing from decades of bomb-making. The closure of the dump has complicated the matter, but it also has halted shipments of waste from across the federal government’s nuclear complex.

In its 15 years of operation, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant received shipments from more than 20 sites as part of the Energy Department’s multibillion-dollar-a-year cleanup program.

Federal officials announced Thursday that they have a plan for resuming some waste storage operations at the repository by the end of 2016, but watchdog groups are skeptical.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Friday in a statement that he’s pleased to have resolved the permit violations at the lab and the repository so DOE can focus on resuming operations.

“The projects we are funding as part of this settlement are important investments in the health and safety of New Mexicans who work at or live nearby DOE facilities,” he said.

Some critics have said the federal government should have funded the projects anyway.

Aside from road and water infrastructure improvements, the settlements call for increased sampling and monitoring of storm water runoff around Los Alamos and regular compliance reviews to ensure the facilities have implemented changes.

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