An attorney with the New Mexico Environment Department said a final settlement agreement is “very close” among the state, the federal government and private contractors related to a ruptured drum of radioactive waste that shut down the nation’s only nuclear waste repository. The total under the proposed settlement is more than $73 million for state and Department of Energy projects related to nuclear waste and WIPP.

“The devil is in the details,” Environment Department general counsel Jeffrey Kendall told state legislators on the Radioactive and Hazardous Materials Committee on Thursday.

The state stands to directly gain $34 million from the settlement, money that will fix roads used to transport nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad. Another $31 million in promised funds under the settlement would go to improve roads, waterlines and stormwater monitoring in Los Alamos for the lab. 

“I was hoping we would have a signed agreement by now,” said Rep. Cathrynn N. Brown, R-Carlsbad, who chairs the committee.

Brown also wanted to know if the WIPP facility, which stores nuclear waste in underground salt caverns, could be reopened once it was cleaned up and had a green light from the state, even if Los Alamos National Laboratory wasn’t yet cleared to ship waste there.

In a nutshell, yes, Kendall replied.

Both WIPP and the lab must correct some of the problems that allowed a container of combustible materials to slip through the oversight process, land in the underground facility, overheat, pop its lid and leak radiation in February 2014. A total of 21 WIPP employees were exposed to radiation, but the dose wasn’t “clinically significant,” according to federal investigators. The resulting cleanup and other costs at WIPP are running in the millions of dollars.

Other places around the country, such as Idaho and Savannah River National Laboratories, also shipped waste to WIPP until it closed. With the facility shut down, all of the places generating mixed radioactive waste have had to store it at their own sites.

Following the 2014 leak, federal investigators traced the container to Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the waste had been repackaged. An ill-advised combination of nitrate salts mixed with an organic absorbent and other chemicals was the likely source of the combustion, according to investigators. A federal Accident Investigation Board found that problems at all levels of oversight, from the lab to WIPP, led to the breached container.

New Mexico oversees hazardous waste permits held by the U.S. Department of Energy for the lab and WIPP. After the container accident, the state fined the Department of Energy and contractors $54 million for 31 violations of their permits. The contractors are Nuclear Waste Partnership, which manages WIPP, and Los Alamos National Security, the consortium including Bechtel Corp. that manages the lab.

In April, the state signed a “general principles of agreement” with the Energy Department and the contractors that laid the foundation for the settlement now under negotiation. The agreement included how the fines will be spent. In addition, the state will waive “any and all present and future claims, penalties, fines or other sanctions” against the federal agency and the contractors involving the breached container incident. The state also will give the lab more time to move hazardous waste stored above ground and negotiate a revised order to finish cleaning up decades of nuclear weapons research waste at the lab.

The contractors at WIPP and the lab have to convince the state that a container of volatile chemicals won’t end up in the underground facility again. About 86 containers with nitrate salts remain at Los Alamos, housed in a steel dome.

State Environment Department officials also met with the Northern New Mexico Citizens Advisory Board on Thursday to discuss the proposed revisions of the 2005 consent order that sets goals and deadlines for cleaning up the lab waste.

A deadline for the lab to remove above-ground radioactive waste stored in containers by June 2014 went unmet after the ruptured container shut down WIPP and stopped waste shipments from Los Alamos.

The other requirements under the original consent order to finish all major waste cleanup by December 2015 hasn’t been completed, due in part to lack of funds, according to lab and Energy Department officials. The consent order covered 2,100 waste sites scattered around lab property and in nearby canyons. Half the sites had been cleaned up by 2012.

Federal officials estimate the cost to finish work under the consent order will be about $1.2 billion. In Thursday’s presentation, state Environment Department officials said they thought the estimate was too low.

They also said they expect to have a revised order for lab cleanup in 2016. Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn has said in prior meetings that the scope of the cleanup required won’t change, only how the lab and the Energy Department accomplish it.

The watchdog group Nuclear Watch New Mexico said it will “be pushing for concrete milestones that are set from the beginning for all actions, for penalties when deadlines are not met, and for a new final end date. The revised Consent Order cannot be open-ended.”

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.