ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - New Mexico on Saturday levied more than $54 million in penalties against the U.S. Department of Energy for numerous violations that resulted in the indefinite closure of the nation's only underground nuclear waste repository.
The state Environment Department delivered a pair of compliance orders to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, marking the state's largest penalty ever imposed on the agency. Together, the orders outline more than 30 state-permit violations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico and at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The orders and the civil penalties that come with them are just the beginning of possible financial sanctions the Energy Department could face in New Mexico. The state says it's continuing to investigate and more fines are possible.
The focus has been on a canister of waste from Los Alamos that ruptured in one of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant's storage rooms in February. More than 20 workers were contaminated, and the facility was forced to close, putting in jeopardy efforts around the country to clean up tons of Cold War-era waste.
The state accuses Los Alamos of mixing incompatible waste, treating hazardous waste without a permit and failing to notify regulators about changes in the way waste was being handled. The penalties for the lab total $36.6 million.
"New Mexico does not need to choose between fulfilling the laboratory's mission and protecting the environment," Ryan Flynn, state environment secretary, said in a letter to Los Alamos officials. "DOE now has an opportunity to learn from these mistakes and implement meaningful corrective actions that will ensure the long-term viability of the Los Alamos National Laboratory."
He wrote a similar letter to officials at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, saying New Mexicans understand the nuclear repository's importance but that it must be operated and maintained with "the highest standards of safety and complete transparency." The nuclear dump's penalties total $17.7 million.
Moniz has said repeatedly that it's a top priority for his agency to get the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant on track, and he took steps earlier this year to shift oversight of the cleanup work at Los Alamos from the National Nuclear Security Administration to his agency's Office of Environmental Management.
It wasn't immediately clear Saturday whether the Department of Energy would seek a hearing on the penalties levied by New Mexico or pursue settlement negotiations. A message seeking comment was left with the agency.
Watchdog Don Hancock said the penalties are a good first step.
"The big question now is what amount of time, effort and money are LANL and WIPP going to spend to contest the violations, which they shouldn't. They should focus on what they're going to do about fixing the problems," he said.
If the Department of Energy pays the fines, New Mexico says it doesn't want the money to come from federal dollars marked for environmental cleanup or operational needs at the two facilities.
Allowing that, Flynn said in his letters, "only serves to punish New Mexico for DOE's own mistakes."
Federal officials are expected to release a final accident investigation report before the end of the year. They have already said that cleanup and resuming full operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant could take years. The price tag has been estimated a half-billion dollars.
The state's investigation has covered the radiological release as well as a fire nine days earlier that involved a truck carrying salt in an another area of the underground facility. The state says its findings confirmed the existence of major procedural problems that contributed to the events.
While investigators have yet to pinpoint exactly what caused the barrel to breach, they suspect a chemical reaction in highly acidic waste that was packed with organic cat litter to absorb moisture. According to the state, experts had notified the lab to stop using organic materials as early as 2012 because of the possible dangers of mixing them with nitrate salts.