By Laura Zuckerman

(Reuters) - It may be years before an underground nuclear waste dump in New Mexico shuttered by a radiation leak is fully operational, and costs for decontamination and other activities to restore the facility are not yet clear, U.S. Energy Department officials said.

A recovery plan is being crafted for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad but details are not expected to be finalized for some weeks, Dana Bryson, deputy manager of the Energy Department field office that oversees the federal dump told a public meeting on Thursday evening.

He said the primary issue tied to a Feb. 14 radiation accident at the plant, managed by contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, was that requirements for disposal were not met in materials shipped to the facility.

“We are evaluating how we can really get out and make sure that for anything we accept in the future, we have solid evidence that the waste acceptance criteria are met, that we have those assurances,” he said.

An investigation into the incident at the site, where refuse contaminated by radioisotopes like plutonium from government nuclear labs and weapons sites are buried in a salt mine a half a mile below ground, has centered on a container whose contents included a chemically reactive mix of nitrate salts, organic matter and lead.

Preliminary findings from the probe indicate a chemical reaction that generated excessive heat caused the waste drum from Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe to rupture, releasing high levels of radiation in the mine and low levels above ground, where 22 workers were contaminated with small amounts not expected to harm their health.

The plant intends to submit a recovery plan to regulators for comment in coming weeks, Bryson said. The Energy Department has said it will be two years or more before the plant is likely to be fully operational, and has asked Congress for over $100 million to underwrite initial cleanup efforts.

The head of the New Mexico Environment Department warned earlier this week of “significant penalties” for the waste dump and Los Alamos for violations of state hazardous waste permits.

The state was gathering information about the radiation release, the handling of radiological debris and other practices at Los Alamos to determine the extent of violations, a New Mexico Environment Department official said.

“Based on increasing information reported to the state from both sites, the state has already identified violations that could lead to penalties,” said agency spokesman Jim Winchester.

 

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Bernard Orr)