|David Iaconangelo reports that in late 2013, operators at a Los Alamos nuclear lab stuffed the wrong kind of kitty litter into a waste drum and shipped it off to Carlsbad, N.M. Deep below the earth, at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a chemical reaction popped open the drum and sent small amounts of radioactivity ascending to the surface, contaminating nearly two dozen workers.|
That now-infamous accident, coming less than two weeks after a fire hospitalized six workers with minor burns at the underground plant, shut down WIPP for three years out of an abundance of caution and safety checks. Last Monday, it accepted its first new shipment of transuranic nuclear waste, contaminated gloves, clothing, tools and other radioactive materials, from an Idaho facility.
There could be more on the way .. almost 80,000 cubic meters of contaminated material, most of it contact-handled, could be shipped to WIPP in the future, according to a 2016 DOE inventory report, and the department will also bring in diluted batches of what was once weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina Savannah River Site.
Carved into an ancient deposit of salt 2,150 feet beneath the surface, WIPP is the only underground repository for radioactive materials in the country. And it embodies the regulatory philosophy that governments ought to get nuclear waste materials into storage facilities, rather than trying to safeguard them above ground.
Its re-opening may resurface ongoing debates over the use of underground repositories, with regulators in the U.S. and other countries pointing to WIPP-style sites as the safest option available for storing nuclear waste, though one often greeted with skepticism by local adversaries having various agendas.
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