Published: 3:15 pm, Wed. Jan. 4th, 2017Updated: 3:13 pm
Employees at the federal government’s only underground nuclear waste repository resumed disposal work Wednesday after a nearly three-year hiatus prompted by a radiation release that contaminated a significant portion of the facility.
Two pallets of low-level radioactive waste were emplaced in one of the underground disposal rooms at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southern New Mexico around 12:45 p.m., the U.S. Energy Department confirmed.
“It went great,” Rick Fuentes, a local union president and a waste handler at the site, told the newspaper. “We’re excited to be back to work.”
Fuentes said around 20 to 25 people worked to move the waste into its final resting place, which is carved out of an ancient salt bed some 2,000 feet below the desert surface. The workers included specially trained waste handlers and radiation control technicians. They wore protective clothing and respirators to keep from coming in contact with any contamination, further complicating the effort to move the waste into place.
“You did it!” reads an email sent to employees from Phil Breidenbach, president of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that manages the repository for the federal government. “It’s the day we’ve all been working for and one we’ll remember for a long time!”
Energy Department officials confirmed to The Associated Press that this was the first cycle of operations since authorization to resume work was given by federal officials on Dec. 23. Earlier this week, workers completed the final touches to secure the walls and ceilings in the disposal area, clearing the way for the waste to be brought underground.
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and other officials are expected to celebrate the reopening with a ribbon-cutting event Monday. Moniz has repeatedly said resuming operations at the repository was a priority for his agency.
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant was designed to accept shipments of Cold War-era waste from sites across the nation’s nuclear complex. The waste includes gloves, tools, clothing and other materials from decades of bomb-making and research.
One of those drums — inappropriately packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory — breached due to a chemical reaction and caused the radiation release. The shutdown put shipments from around the country on indefinite hold as the federal government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into recovery efforts and policy overhauls. The Energy Department also agreed to a multi-million-dollar deal with the state of New Mexico to settle numerous permit violations.
Investigators had said the incident could have been avoided had existing policies and procedures been followed. It’s still unclear when shipments of waste from other national laboratories and defense sites around the country will resume.