Cleanup of US nuclear waste takes back seat as virus spreads

Full Screen
1 / 5

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this March 1999 file photo, the first load of nuclear waste arrives at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site in Carlsbad, N.M., from Los Alamos National Laboratory. The U.S. government's efforts to clean up decades worth of Cold War-era waste from nuclear research and bomb making at federal sites around the country has chugged along, often at a pace that watchdogs and other critics say threatens public health and the environment. Now, fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic is resulting in more challenges as WIPP, the nation's only underground repository for nuclear waste, finished ramping down operations Wednesday, April 1, 2020, to keep workers safe. (AP Photo/Thomas Herbert, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The U.S. government’s efforts to clean up Cold War-era waste from nuclear research and bomb making at federal sites around the country has lumbered along for decades, often at a pace that watchdogs and other critics say threatens public health and the environment.

Now, fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic is resulting in more challenges as the nation’s only underground repository for nuclear waste finished ramping down operations Wednesday to keep workers safe.

Over more than 20 years, tons of waste have been stashed deep in the salt caverns that make up the southern New Mexico site. Until recently, several shipments a week of special boxes and barrels packed with lab coats, rubber gloves, tools and debris contaminated with plutonium and other radioactive elements were being trucked to the remote facility from South Carolina, Idaho and other spots.

That's all but grinding to a halt.

Shipments to the desert outpost will be limited for the foreseeable future while work at the country's national laboratories and defense sites shift to only those operations considered “mission critical.”

Officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant warned state regulators in a letter Tuesday that more time would be needed for inspections and audits and that work would be curtailed or shifts would be staggered to ensure workers keep their distance from one another.

“This action is being taken out of an abundance of caution for the safety of employees and the community,” said Donavan Mager, a spokesman for Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that runs the repository.

Some critical duties still must be done — like placing bolts in the repository's ceilings to ensure the shifting salt doesn't collapse.