New Mexico Lets Nuclear Waste Remain Above Ground After Radioactive Leak

Thomas Herbert/AP file photo

Atomic waste-filled containers are being temporarily stored outside faulty underground facility.

New Mexico has extended the time allowed for keeping atomic waste above ground after last month’s radioactive release at an underground repository.

The federally run Waste Isolation Pilot Plant remains closed following the February release of a small quantity of radiation from the subterranean dump. In the meantime, dozens of atomic waste-filled containers sent from other federal sites to the New Mexico repository for disposal are being left in the site's parking area and waste-handling facility, the Associated Press reported.

The WIPP facility, under its permit with the New Mexico government, is allowed to keep radioactive waste in the parking area for no more than a month and in the handling facility for no more than two months. However, since the repository remains closed, state environment officials are extending the two deadlines to give the U.S. Energy Department time to devise a plan for handling the nuclear waste in the future. The new thinking is based on the possibility that the underground portion of the facility might stay closed for more than three months, according to an administrative decision released on Monday.

Officials last week hinted it could be weeks before workers are allowed to return to the subterranean part of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where at least 13 personnel were exposed to radioactive contaminants last month.

The New Mexico Environment Department is getting weekly updates regarding the status of the site, and has demanded that an inspection be carried out before operations at the nuclear facility are re-launched.

"To require them to begin to systematically ship particular waste units back to points of origin or back to particular locations in a rather expedited fashion was not the best thing as far as environmental health or human health in this instance," said Jeff Kendall, attorney for the Environment Department, explaining the department’s thinking in a phone interview with the wire service.

Officials have not yet ascertained what caused the leak of radioactive elements.