CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — A decision to transfer a record-storage contract for the government's troubled underground nuclear waste dump to a Tennessee company is a "crime against the taxpayer" and sends the wrong message as the project struggles to recover from the most significant setback in its history, community leaders said in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
City and county leaders on Tuesday issued the objection to a recent announcement by the Nuclear Waste Partnership, which runs the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in southeastern New Mexico for the federal Department of Energy, that it had awarded the contract to handle all of the dump's archives and documents to a Tennessee-based company, TFE Inc. TFE replaces S.M. Stoller Corp., which employs about 90 people in Carlsbad.
The change comes as the dump is indefinitely shuttered by a mysterious radiation leak that contaminated 21 workers with low levels of radiation.
"NWP and all of WIPP are currently embroiled in the most significant setback of the project's 15-year history," the letter said. "NWP should be building confidence in Southeastern New Mexico right now, and subcontracting with an outside company who will be laying off a large group of local people doesn't exactly seem like the wisest way to build community relations."
They also questioned the legality of the contract, saying the Waste Isolation Pilot Project Records Archive was "created federally with the full understanding that the facility would be in Carlsbad, as would the consolidation of records."
"... Abandoning these facilities now is a crime against the taxpayer," the letter said.
The dump, which is the federal government's only permanent repository for waste from decades of building nuclear bombs from Los Alamos National Laboratories and other federal facilities, has been shuttered since a radiation release on Feb. 14.
Waste isolation Pilot Plant Recovery Manager Jim Blankenhorn told a town hall meeting last week that after several trips into the half-mile-deep repository, officials believe the radiation leak was likely caused by a chemical reaction in nuclear waste that was mixed with nitrate salt. A switch from a non-organic substance to organic was what triggered the event, Blankenhorn said.
Among the possibilities that officials have since confirmed are being studied: a switch in the type of kitty litter-type substance that is used to absorb moisture in waste containers before they are sealed.
Nine days before the release, a truck hauling salt in the mine caught fire. But officials have said the fire was far from the waste-handling area and that the events were likely unrelated.
Initial investigations into both accidents have blamed them on a slow erosion of the safety culture at the 15-year-old, multibillion-dollar site.