CARLSBAD, N.M. — For 15 years the trucks have barreled past southeastern New Mexico’s potash mines and seemingly endless fields of oil rigs, hauling decades worth of plutonium-contaminated waste to what is supposed to be a safe and final resting place a half mile underground in the salt beds of the Permian Basin.
But back-to-back accidents and a never-supposed-to-happen above-ground radiation release that exposed at least 13 workers have shuttered the federal government’s only deep underground nuclear waste dump indefinitely. They have also raised questions about a cornerstone of the Department of Energy’s $5-billion-a-year program for cleaning up legacy waste scattered across the country from decades of nuclear bomb making.
The problems also highlight a lack of alternatives for disposing of tainted materials like tools, gloves, glasses, and protective suits from national labs in Idaho, Illinois, South Carolina, and New Mexico.
With operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on hold, so are all shipments, including the last of nearly 4,000 barrels of toxic waste that Los Alamos National Laboratories has been ordered to remove from its campus by the end of June. The presence of that waste, some of which was dug up from decades-old, unsealed dumps in the northern New Mexico mountains and is now stored outside with little protection, came to the public’s attention three years ago as a massive wildfire lapped at the edges of the sprawling lab property.
US Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, a Democrat, said getting the rest of the waste off the mesa before wildfire season begins is paramount, but that it is too soon to know if a temporary alternative site for storing the waste needs to be found.
Also on hold are tests to determine if the dump can expand its mission to take more than so-called lower level transuranic waste from the nation’s research facilities, including hopes by DOE that it can ship hotter, liquid waste from leaking tanks at Washington state’s Hanford nuclear waste site.
New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn said the state will look closely at what caused the leak that exposed at least 13 workers and sent radiation into the air around the plant before deciding whether to back expansion plans.
Government officials, politicians, the contractors that run the mine, and local officials all say it is too soon to speculate on what the short- or long-term impacts of the shutdown might be, or where else the toxic waste would go. And they emphasize that all the safety systems designed to react to worst-case scenarios worked.
‘‘A lot of people are just jumping up and down and wanting us to shut down,’’ said Farok Sharif, of the Nuclear Waste Partnership that runs WIPP. ‘‘But that’s not the case here. We’ve designed this facility to look at these types of accidents and we’ve planned on making sure that we continue to protect our employees.’’