By Joseph J. Kolb
ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (Reuters) - The Los Alamos National Laboratory has found a temporary home in Texas for roughly 1,000 barrels of radioactive junk left in limbo after a radiation leak led to a prolonged shutdown of New Mexico's only nuclear waste disposal facility.
Los Alamos, one of the leading U.S. nuclear weapons labs, said earlier this month it had been forced to halt shipments of its radioactive refuse some 300 miles across the state to the nation's only underground nuclear repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad.
The repository has remained closed while the U.S. Department of Energy investigates the origins of a radiation leak that occurred there on February 14, exposing at least 17 workers to radioactive contamination. It was the first such mishap since the facility opened in 1999.
That left a quandary for Los Alamos, which faces a strict June 30 deadline to dispose of roughly 1,000 temporary storage drums of radiation-contaminated waste. The lab said on Thursday that waste would be sent to the Waste Control Specialists facility in Andrews County, Texas.
The waste that will go to Texas includes clothing, tools, rags, debris, soil and other items contaminated with low levels of radiation, Los Alamos said. It will be held in Texas temporarily, pending the reopening of the New Mexico repository.
According to Los Alamos lab spokesman Matt Nerzig, the waste will begin to be shipped to the temporary site in early April, ahead of the June deadline set by the state environmental department to remove it from the Los Alamos campus.
Established during World War Two as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the world's first atomic bomb, Los Alamos remains one of the leading nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities in the United States.
A massive wildfire that raged at the edge of the complex in 2011 burned to within a few miles of a collection of radioactive waste drums temporarily stored at the site. Since then, Energy Department and state officials have made the removal of the waste a top environmental priority.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)