New Mexico attorney: Money, timing holding up final settlement of nuke violations

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Disagreement over money and timing have stalled the signing of an agreement that would settle dozens of violations stemming from a radiation leak at the federal government’s troubled nuclear waste repository in New Mexico, a state official told lawmakers Thursday.

Officials with the New Mexico Environment Department have been meeting with the U.S. Department of Energy and congressional staffers as negotiators work to finalize the settlement.

“The debate right now is how much money and over how much time,” Jeff Kendall, the Environment Department’s general counsel, told members of the Legislature’s Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee during a meeting in Santa Fe.

Kendall could not give lawmakers a timeframe but said officials are close to having the agreement finalized.

An Energy Department spokesman said conversations with the state have been productive and that the agency is fully committed to the principles of the settlement that were first outlined in April. The deal is the largest ever negotiated between a state and the DOE.

The principles call for the Energy Department to funnel more than $73 million toward New Mexico road improvements and environmental projects.

Some $34 million would go directly to the state to spend on road projects in and around Carlsbad, home of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. The federal government would spend the remainder on projects around Carlsbad and Los Alamos.

The state initially levied more than $54 million in penalties against the DOE and its contractors for numerous permit violations at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that were identified following the radiation release.

A drum of waste was inappropriately packed with incompatible ingredients at Los Alamos and shipped to the repository, starting a chemical reaction that led to the February 2014 radiation breach.

Federal officials say it could take another year and cost more than a half-billion dollars to resume operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Federal investigators determined the breach could have been prevented, and the state called for a series of corrective actions.

“We’re obviously taking the position that these projects need to be completed and these corrective actions need to be completed over an 18- to 24-month period,” Kendall said. “We’ve taken a very, very hard line that anything beyond two years would be absolutely unacceptable.”

The Energy Department has asked to shift tens of millions of dollars in its budget to start addressing the changes the state is seeking, but those requests are pending in congressional committees.

In response to questions from lawmakers, Kendall said corrective measures will have to be adopted and safety ensured before the state will allow for the repository to reopen. Until then, waste shipments from Los Alamos and other national defence sites will remain on hold.

“We have to be mindful of what occurred, and everybody from the federal government to the contractors working at the facility to the state regulators to the citizens of New Mexico need to realize what occurred was fully preventable,” he said.


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