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WIPP workers practice handling waste

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Workers at the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository are undergoing training as they prepare to handle radioactive waste for the first time since a leak shut down the New Mexico facility two years ago.

Department of Energy experts kept an eye on radiation control technicians and waste handlers during the exercise last week at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, and workers wore a layer of protective clothing.

An inappropriately packed container of waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory ruptured and contaminated part of the facility in February 2014. The closure derailed cleanup at federal sites around the nation, and recovery is costing the Energy Department hundreds of millions of dollars.

Thursday’s simulation occurred in an area tainted from the release. Workers had to move simulated waste from the clean side to the contaminated side without spreading more contamination. The plant near Carlsbad will receive only about five shipments of nuclear waste a week while officials assess the new procedures, said Bobby St. John, assistant manager of the Nuclear Waste Partnership.

In a typical week, workers would process 20 to 25 shipments. The exercise should have taken three to four hours but it lasted five after an evacuation drill caused a shift change, Jim Blankenhorn, vice president and recovery project manager for Nuclear Waste Partnership, said Friday.

Marcus Ingram, who has worked as a waste manager at the plant for 15 years, spoke to the newspaper during a break in the training.

“This will just make it more complicated to do our job,” Ingram said. “We were doing our job perfectly safe for 15 years, and we weren’t the cause of the accident, so this is overkill.”

Energy Department officials told the repository about issues it saw during the simulations, and the facility will use the next few weeks to correct the problems, which were not disclosed. After that, outside contractors will evaluate workers’ performance, and the department will decide whether or not the plant is ready to open.

“What I compare it to is a series of scrimmages before your first game,” St. John said. “We want to know exactly what we’re doing.”

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