Instead of paying a direct fine, the Department of Energy (DoE) will pay New Mexico $73 million in road and other infrastructure projects for violations incurred from an underground nuclear waste dump and nuclear research lab that led to a radiation leak last year, officials said.
The deal struck between the department and New Mexico forgoes fines and instead applies funds to upgrades to federal nuclear facilities and surrounding communities in the state, according to settlement documents.
Projects include construction of a $5 million emergency operations center in Carlsbad, near where the nuclear waste dump leaked radiation in February 2014.
The leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, exposed 22 workers to radiation in amounts not expected to threaten their health, and indefinitely suspended key operations at the site, the Energy Department’s only permanent underground disposal facility for certain types of radiological waste from U.S. nuclear labs.
The radiation accident cause was the result of “chemically incompatible” contents, including cat litter, which reacted in a barrel of waste and caused it to rupture, according to a federal probe of the mishap.
The breached drum containing radioisotopes such as plutonium ended up improperly packaged with the wrong sort of kitty litter – used as an absorbent – at the Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe before it arrived at WIPP for disposal, investigators found.
The deal includes $34 million to improve roads around the WIPP site, $12 million to improve nuclear waste transportation routes in and around Los Alamos, and $9.5 million in storm-water management upgrades at the lab’s complex.
In addition, it provides $10 million for improvements to water infrastructure in and around Los Alamos, and $2.75 million for an independent compliance and operational review.