Mishaps at nuke repository lead to $54M in fines

CARLSBAD, N.M. (KRQE) – – A nuclear waste leak that contaminated more than a dozen workers has led to big fines from the state. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, along with Los Alamos National Laboratory, is now looking at more than 30 violations and more than $50 million in penalties the New Mexico Environment Department said Saturday.

The waste leak happened back in February at WIPP and just days before that, there was a fire at the underground plant. The New Mexico Environment Department says it found major problems there and at Los Alamos.

The state’s nine-month investigation found 13 violations carrying a fine of almost $18 million at WIPP, where the leak contaminated more than 20 workers and forced the plant to clolse.

Up at Los Alamos National Laboratory it was even worse, with 24 violations and a cost of more than $36 million.

The state says at LANL, waste was improperly mixed and treated without a permit.

The New Mexico Environment Department is now fining the Department of Energy for those penalties.

The orders and the civil penalties that come with them are just the beginning of possible financial sanctions the Energy Department could face in New Mexico. The state says it’s continuing to investigate and more fines are possible.

“New Mexico does not need to choose between fulfilling the laboratory’s mission and protecting the environment,” Ryan Flynn, state environment secretary, said in a letter to Los Alamos officials. “DOE now has an opportunity to learn from these mistakes and implement meaningful corrective actions that will ensure the long-term viability of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.”

He wrote a similar letter to officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, saying New Mexicans understand the nuclear repository’s importance but that it must be operated and maintained with “the highest standards of safety and complete transparency.” The nuclear dump’s penalties total $17.7 million.

If the Department of Energy pays the fines, New Mexico says it doesn’t want the money to come from federal dollars marked for environmental cleanup or operational needs at the two facilities.

Don Hancock, who studies nuclear waste at the Southwest Research and Information Center says the fines come as no surprise and he hopes it’s a wakeup call for the facilities.

“They need to accelerate complying with the permits because that will protect public health and the environment better and it would limit the amount of future fines they could be charged,” Hancock said.

The $54 million dollar penalty is the largest the state has ever dished out to the Department of Energy. It could try to get the fines lowered.

KRQE News 13 tried to reach both facilities and the Department of Energy but did not hear back.

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