Work ongoing at US nuclear repository despite virus cases


CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Managers of the federal government’s underground nuclear waste repository in southern New Mexico say operations are ongoing despite a recent increase in COVID-19 cases among workers.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant has seen cases among workers more than double in the last week, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported.

The plant last Monday announced four new cases among employees of Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that oversees daily operations at the facility. In all, the plant has reported at least 14 positive cases among employees and subcontractors.

The plant is in the second phase of resuming normal operations after having slowed the emplacement of waste this spring when the pandemic began, said spokesperson Bobby St. John.

“We continue to closely monitor overall operations at the site and allocate resources as needed,” he said. “WIPP remains in Phase 2 for the resumption of work activities. Shipments are regularly adjusted based on crew availability and ongoing work priorities at the site.”

St. John told The Associated Press that the first positive case reported at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant was in April and since that time about 1% of the workforce has tested positive for COVID-19. He said all of the cases have been reported to the state Health Department and that plant managers provide daily updates to the U.S. Energy Department on the status of the workforce.

“The safety of our workforce is our top priority as we continue to closely monitor this pandemic,” he said Wednesday.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the nation’s only location for disposing of tons of Cold War-era waste generated over years of bomb-making and nuclear weapons research. That includes gloves, clothing, tools and other debris contaminated by plutonium and other radioactive elements.

The waste is placed into vaults carved out of an ancient salt formation about a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) below the surface.

In January, two dozen shipments were accepted by the facility. Records show that was followed by 10 shipments in February, six in March and seven in April. May saw an increase to 20 shipments when the state of New Mexico began easing some restrictions related to the statewide public health order that had been enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Shipments remained steady in June and July, records show.

St. John said the facility has followed all protocols recommended by the federal government and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That has included sanitizing work areas, abiding by quarantine protocols and having people work from home whenever possible.

The facility also marked a milestone in July, when it received the first shipments of waste from Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque since 2012. The shipments included waste that has to be handled remotely due to higher levels of radiation.

The shipments were packaged in lead-lined shielded containers that weigh about 1,700 pounds when empty.

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