ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — It was the determination of workers over nearly three years and pure ingenuity that allowed the nation's only underground repository for low-level nuclear waste to recover from a radiation release, the head of the U.S. Energy Department said.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told The Associated Press that resuming work at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico means the nation's multibillion-dollar cleanup of waste from decades of bomb-making and nuclear research is one step closer to getting back on track.
"We are very, very excited about getting at least a resumption of operations," he said during an interview late Sunday. "I do want to caution we will not be at full speed yet for a few years."
Moniz, Gov. Susana Martinez, members of the state's congressional delegation and others were gathering Monday to mark the reopening of the site.
The repository was shuttered in February 2014 after a chemical reaction inside a drum of inappropriately packed waste caused the lid to burst, contaminating some of the disposal vaults, corridors and air shafts that make up the facility.
The facility is carved out of an ancient salt formation about a half-mile below the desert surface, with the idea that eventually the shifting salt will entomb the waste.
Moniz acknowledged that the closure has caused a backlog of radioactive waste to build up at sites around the country — from northern New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where the basic materials used to fabricate nuclear weapons were produced.
The secretary said he's hopeful shipments from some of the sites can resume later this year.
Aside from stalling shipments for nearly three years, the radiation release at the repository prompted an intense investigation that revealed the incident could have been avoided had existing policies been followed. Investigators highlighted lapses in management and oversight, and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and Los Alamos lab — where the drum was packed — were cited for numerous permit violations.
Negotiations eventually led to the largest settlement ever between the Energy Department and a state.
"Bottom-line: We moved quickly to hold the federal government accountable," Martinez said in a statement. She also thanked Moniz and the department for taking responsibility, noting the importance of the repository to the nation and the state's economy.
The incident has been costly, with recovery at the repository expected to approach a half-billion dollars once a new, permanent ventilation system is installed.
Moniz said much has been learned since 2014: the criteria for characterizing, treating and packaging waste has been overhauled and numerous technological advancements have been made.
"The workers had some really challenging environments to deal with because of the contamination," he said. "That really made for a tough period, but again ingenuity came to the fore. It was ingenuity that had to be supported by local, state and federal policymakers and regulators all working together."
Following a series of readiness reviews and an inspection by New Mexico state regulators, workers at the repository last Wednesday moved the first two pallets of waste from an above-ground storage building into the underground