ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An area at the U.S. government’s nuclear waste repository in southeastern New Mexico was evacuated over the weekend after workers handling a shipping container discovered a small amount of radioactive liquid inside it.
There was no indication of airborne contamination and testing of workers’ hands and feet turned up no contamination after the discovery was made late Saturday in a bay where containers are processed before being taken underground for disposal, officials said in a statement issued late Saturday.
“The event at the site has been secured. There is no risk of radiological release and there is no risk to the public or the environment,” plant officials said in the statement.
Officials confirmed Monday that the shipment was packed and sent from Idaho National Laboratory, but investigators were trying to determine the source of the liquid found inside the container, said Bobby St. John, a spokesperson for the contractor that manages the repository for the federal government.
The waste containers were securely placed back into the special shipping container, St. John said.
“We have written processes and protocols in place for this type of situation and all protocols were followed,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. “Additionally, the (contact-handled waste) bay is designed to contain radiological contaminants in order to protect the workforce, surrounding ecology and the local community.”
The repository is the backbone of a multibillion-dollar cleanup program that involves tons of Cold War-era waste from federal labs and defense-related sites around the country.
The waste — remnants of decades of nuclear research and bomb making — typically consists of lab coats, gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements.
Independent federal investigators last month raised concerns about whether cost overruns and missed construction deadlines will continue at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
A multimillion-dollar project is underway at the underground facility to install a new ventilation system so that full operations can resume, following a radiation leak in 2014 that forced the repository’s closure for nearly three years and led to major policy overhauls.
The container that caused that release had been inappropriately packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico.
Operations had to be reduced after the waste plant reopened in 2017 because areas of the facility were contaminated and airflow needed for mining and disposal operations was limited.
It was unclear Monday whether operations had resumed in the area where shipments are processed. St. John said only that the shipping container with the radioactive liquid was placed in a “safe configuration, pending results of the investigation and resulting mitigation actions.”
The repository was carved out of an ancient salt formation about a half-mile (0.8 kilometer) below the ground because officials say that the shifting salt will eventually entomb the radioactive waste.
Its current footprint includes eight sections, which the U.S. Energy Department estimates will be filled in 2025.
State regulators are weighing a permit change that some critics have said could lead to expanded repository operations. A decision is expected later this year.