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September 2, 2014

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New Mexico: 500 barrels of questionable nuke waste

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Los Alamos National Laboratory photo via AP

A truck hauls a shipment of nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., April 2, 2014.

ALBUQUERQUE — More than 500 barrels of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory were packed with the kitty litter linked to a radiation release at the government's underground nuclear waste dump, prompting the state Tuesday to order federal officials to move quickly to seal off the potentially dangerous containers.

Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn Tuesday gave the U.S. Department of Energy and the contractor that runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico until Friday to detail plans for permanently sealing the rooms where more than 300 barrels of the potentially dangerous containers of waste are stored in ancient salt beds a half-mile underground.

In addition to 368 containers at the dump, environment officials say 57 more are still at Los Alamos and more than 100 are in storage in West Texas.

On Monday, the department ordered Los Alamos to detail by Wednesday its plans for securing the waste that is still above ground on its campus and at Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas.

The orders come as officials have linked a Feb. 14 radiation release that contaminated 22 workers to waste that was packed with kitty litter to absorb moisture. Officials are investigating whether a switch by Los Alamos from inorganic to organic litter in January 2013 caused a chemical reaction and breach that has shuttered indefinitely the government's only permanent repository for waste from decades of nuclear bomb building.

Based on evidence to date, the orders from Flynn say the barrels pose a potentially "imminent and substantial" danger to public health and the environment.

Jeffrey Kendall, general counsel for the environment department, said both Los Alamos and Waste Isolation Pilot Plant officials have been working closely with the state. But he said the formal orders are needed "to make sure all proper procedures ... continue to be followed explicitly."

Department of Energy and Waste Isolation Pilot Plant officials did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

A Los Alamos official on Monday said the lab is committed to ensuring the barrels "pose no significant safety or health risk to the public, the environment and the workers."

The lab also has taken a series of precautionary measures, including packing the drums into special containers and moving them under a dome with a fire protection system. Officials at Waste Control Specialists said they have taken similar measures.

Most of the waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is in a room called Panel 6, which is full and was waiting to be sealed when the leak occurred. The others containers are in Panel 7, where waste was actively being stored and where the leak is believed to have occurred.

The order instructs officials to put together plans for quickly sealing off those rooms, although officials still have very limited access to the mine and continue to investigate the cause of the leak.

"They need to get us a plan on paper that is going to demonstrate that they are working quickly to figure out what the problem is and isolate those containers," Kendall said.

Kendall declined to speculate on whether the state would extend a June 30 deadline for Los Alamos to get the last of thousands of barrels of waste off its campus before wildfire season hits its peak.

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