ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It could take two years or more for the federal government to seal off hundreds of potentially dangerous containers at its troubled underground nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy said in a filing Friday.
Responding to an order from the New Mexico Environment Department to detail its plans, the department gave broad ranges that indicate it could take a minimum of about 100 work weeks -- and possibly twice that long -- to secure the rooms at the now-shuttered plant where more than 350 containers of toxic waste from decades of building nuclear bombs at Los Alamos National Laboratory is stored.
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The report notes that the investigation into a Feb. 14 radiation leak that contaminated 22 workers with low-levels of radiation and indefinitely shuttered the Waste Isolation Pilot Project isn't complete and could affect the work.
A Department of Energy spokeswoman declined to comment on the estimated time frame, which is laid out broadly by giving an estimate of the work days it will take to complete each step.
New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn issued a statement saying the state would review the plan.
Also on Friday, the Department of Energy said Los Alamos National Laboratory won't be able to meet a deadline for getting the last of thousands of barrels of the waste containing things like contaminated gloves and tools off its northern New Mexico campus before wildfire season peaks because of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant's closure.
In a statement, the department said it has notified the New Mexico Environment Department that it can't move the barrels until officials are sure it is safe.
A canister shipped from Los Alamos to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project has been linked to the release, and officials are investigating whether hundreds of other barrels from Los Alamos that are currently stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Los Alamos and in West Texas are at risk of releasing radiation.
The waste was packed with cat litter to absorb moisture. Officials are trying to determine whether a switch from inorganic to organic litter is to blame for a chemical reaction with nitrate salts that caused the radiation release, which contaminated 22 workers and indefinitely shuttered the plant.
Department of Energy Deputy Undersecretary David Klaus said the agency has "made great strides in cleanup at the Los Alamos National Laboratory," but it is halting shipments "until we can reassure the public that it is safe to do so."
"This was a tough decision to make and the Department remains committed to solving this issue and resuming shipments," Klaus said.
The New Mexico Environment Department said it "was disappointed but not surprised," noting the top priority is public safety.
Los Alamos spokesman Matt Nerzig said the lab remains "determined to meet our obligations to the state of New Mexico" and is working to help find the cause of the radiation release.
The agreement for removal of the waste by June 30 was reached after a massive wildfire lapped at the edge of lab property three years ago, raising concerns about the thousands of barrels of waste that were being stored outside. There are still 57 barrels on the campus, which officials have repacked into special containers and are now storing under a dome with 24-hour monitoring and fire-protection systems.