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Dump Closure Leaves Nuclear Waste Stranded... In Parking Lot

New Mexico underground repository closed by series of mishaps, including airborne radiation leak

Sarah Lazare, staff writer

With the U.S. government's only deep-earth repository for nuclear waste above the lowest levels of radiation still closed, dozens of containers holding nuclear waste are being storedabove-ground in a parking lot and a waste-handling building.

The federally-owned Waste Isolation Pilot Project, located in southeastern New Mexico, has been closed to underground waste dumping since early February as a result of a series of accidents, including an airborne radiation leak that contaminated at least 13 workers.

Under New Mexico state law, nuclear waste can only be held in the parking area for a maximum of 30 days and in the handling building for a maximum of 60 days. However, state authorities are extending the maximum allowable time. 

WIPP is the bedrock of the U.S. government's current approach to dispose of military-generated plutonium-contaminated transuranic waste from decades of nuclear bomb production and testing. Since it became operational in 1999, WIPP has collected this waste from across the United States, including Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico. 

The closure has left nuclear waste headed for WIPP stranded, including waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory — which conducts nuclear weapons research — which iscurrently being held in an outside dome in the city of Los Alamos.

The Department of Energy and Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that runs the dump, still do not know what caused the radiation leak.

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