Dozens of containers of nuclear waste are sitting above ground in the parking area outside of New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant after its underground salt beds were closed due to leaks.
Back-to-back accidents, including the exposure of at least 13 workers to radiation, closed the plant in early February.
Now waste shipped to the plant from federal facilities across the country are being stored in the parking area of the waste handling building. Under a state permit, waste can be stored in this area for up to 60 days, but the state has extended that deadline to 105 days.
New Mexico officials told the Associated Press they have set deadlines for the U.S. Department of Energy to deal with the waste left above ground.
The containers can’t go back, says Jeff Kendall, general counsel for the DOE.
“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,” Kendall said in a phone interview.
The repository is the only one in the country that can store plutonium-contaminated clothing and tools. It houses more than 90,000 cubic meters of waste.
Before the Feb. 5 accident, the plant had a perfect record in the 15 years since it opened.
Tests at the plant are ongoing to determine the cause of the leaking radiation and the health effects on workers.