Officials ask to store nuclear waste above ground after leak shut dump

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Energy wants to clear away nearly two football fields of desert in southern New Mexico to use as temporary storage for containers of radioactive waste coming from around the country while it works to reopen the government’s only underground nuclear waste repository.

The agency is asking state regulators to approve the construction of an aboveground storage area at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant where waste can be kept for up to a year before it is hauled deep below ground and permanently stashed in vaults carved out of a thick salt formation. Critics on Thursday called for the state to reject the proposal.

The plant has been closed since February 2014 when a radiation release contaminated parts of the facility. The closure has created a backlog of shipments from Los Alamos National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory and other government sites.

The release was caused by a chemical reaction inside an inappropriately packed drum shipped from Los Alamos. Investigators determined the incident could have been prevented and a slew of new policies and procedures followed as the government reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with New Mexico over damages.

Officials have said some operations at the repository are expected to resume by year’s end, but it’s unclear when shipments will be accepted again.

The Energy Department has detailed its plan for the aboveground storage area in a request to the state Environment Department. Public comment is due in early December, and some watchdog groups are lining up to fight the proposal.

Special casks designed to withstand the force of tornadoes and seismic events would be used to store packaged waste on an open concrete pad that would cover more than 2 acres.

Federal officials say the storage area would give the plant more flexibility to handle incoming waste if an event delayed it from being taken underground or if workers needed to do maintenance below ground.

It would also expand the repository’s storage capacity by more than 25 percent, officials say.

Despite assurances of the robustness of the concrete containers, critics of the plan said Thursday they are asking for the department’s request to be withdrawn or rejected by state regulators.