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Latest: WIPP nuclear waste spill investigation concludes

Workers incorrectly packaged waste shipped to the facility, whose future remains unclear.


In February 2014, fire erupted at New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the country’s only permanent nuclear waste repository. Later that month, in an unrelated incident, containers of nuclear bomb debris leaked radioactive particles into the air. In response, the Department of Energy shut down WIPP, leaving the defense industry with nowhere to dispose of radioactive waste like clothing, machinery parts, and sludge (“The leak heard ’round the nuclear industry,” HCN, 6/9/14).

The Energy Department concluded its investigation in late February, finding that Los Alamos National Laboratory workers incorrectly packaged waste shipped to WIPP, leading to the leak and exposing more than 20 workers to radiation. Federal officials issued safety violation citations to two contractors, but no fines. WIPP disposal operations may resume this year, but the cost of re-starting is estimated at nearly a half-billion dollars. In the meantime, waste is backing up at Los Alamos and elsewhere, including sites in Nevada and Idaho.