U.S. government to pay New Mexico $73 million over radiation leak

By Laura Zuckerman (Reuters) - The U.S. Energy Department will pay New Mexico $73 million in road and other infrastructure projects for violations by an underground nuclear waste dump and nuclear research lab that led to a radiation leak last year, officials said on Thursday. 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 was caused by "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 was 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. New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez said in a statement that funds from the settlement "will be used to continue ensuring the safety and success of these important facilities, the people who work there, and their local communities." 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. In a statement, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said: "I am pleased that we were able to find a solution that will allow the Department to focus on resuming operations at WIPP and improving our waste management operations, while providing benefit to the environment and to local communities in New Mexico." Energy Department officials have estimated the cost of the initial recovery of the dump at $240 million and said it might be two years or more before it is fully operational. (Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Daniel Wallis)