The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has agreed to pay $73.25 million toward infrastructure projects in New Mexico as a way of settling $54 million in fines—and of forestalling potential future fines—levied against it for a February 2014 radiation leak that shut down the country’s only underground nuclear storage facility indefinitely.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) has been closed since the incident, in which a waste drum ruptured, leaked radiation and contaminated 21 workers. The Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), which had packed the material in organic kitty litter rather than inorganic—enabling the chemical reaction that sparked the fire that caused the rupture that led to the leak—is also part of the settlement.
Since the accident came about largely because of permit violations and the failure to follow proper protocols at both WIPP and LANL, the projects will be funded at least partly from the unearned salary of the contractors involved, environmental authorities said. It will not be taken from monies devoted to the $500 million cleanup cost.
“It’s not being diverted from cleanup budgets or the operational budgets of WIPP or Los Alamos,” state Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn told the Albuquerque Journal. “It’s going to supplement the money we currently receive.”
The goal is to use the money directly on projects designed to protect local communities and safeguard transportation routes in New Mexico and around DOE sites, the DOE said in its statement. The hope is that this will improve the safety and security of nuclear materials and the roads they are transported over, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez said in a joint media release from her office and the DOE. The settlement according to the release, allocates:
· $34 million to improve roads and transportation routes around the WIPP site in Southeastern New Mexico;
· $12 million to improve transuranic waste transportation routes in and around Los Alamos;
· $10 million to upgrade critical water infrastructure in and around Los Alamos;
· $9.5 million to build engineering structures and increase monitoring capabilities around LANL to better manage storm water flows;
· $5 million to construct an emergency operations center in Carlsbad and provide enhanced training for emergency responders and mine rescue teams; and,
· $2.75 million to fund an independent triennial compliance and operational review.
The New Mexico Environmental Department had found a total of 31 violations at WIPP and LANL in December and levied the fine. Subsequent reports confirmed that among other violations, the substitution of organic for inorganic kitty litter was largely to blame for the incident.
“The Department of Energy and the State of New Mexico have worked together to identify projects at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and the Los Alamos National Laboratory that are mutually beneficial and do not detract from cleanup at these sites,” said Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz in a statement. “I am pleased that we were able to find a solution that will allow the Department to focus on resuming operations at WIPP and improving our waste management operations, while providing benefit to the environment and to local communities in New Mexico.”
“This agreement underscores the importance of WIPP and LANL as critical assets to our nation’s security, our state’s economy, and the communities in which they operate,” said Martinez. “The funds we will receive through the agreement will be used to continue ensuring the safety and success of these important facilities, the people who work there, and their local communities. I commend the Department of Energy for taking responsibility, and we look forward to continuing to work with the federal government to ensure the safety and success of LANL and WIPP.”