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November 24, 2014

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Los Alamos resumes nuclear-waste shipments

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Los Alamos National Laboratory photo via AP

A truck hauls a shipment of nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., April 2, 2014.

LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Los Alamos National Laboratory, under a tight deadline to get nuclear waste off its northern New Mexico campus before wildfire season peaks, has begun trucking containers to temporary storage in west Texas while the government's only permanent nuclear dump remains shuttered by a radiation leak.

The first shipments arrived Tuesday at a commercial nuclear waste dump in Andrews County, more than a month after the nation's only permanent repository for the waste in southeastern New Mexico was closed by back-to-back accidents, Los Alamos and U.S. Department of Energy officials said.

Shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad were halted Feb. 5 after a truck hauling salt in the half-mile deep mine and repository caught fire. Nine days later, radiation leaked above ground at the facility, contaminating at least 21 workers and sending toxins into the air around the dump. Officials insisted all the levels were way below those deemed unsafe.

A series of shortcomings were cited two weeks ago by a team that investigated the truck fire. Officials hope to get underground this week to begin investigating what caused the radiation release.

The dump's closure left federal officials scrambling to find an alternative for the last of nearly 4,000 barrels of plutonium-contaminated tools and protective gear from decades of nuclear bomb-building at Los Alamos. The lab has promised to have all the waste, which is stored outside on a mesa, removed by the end of June.

The state of New Mexico pressured Los Alamos to speed up removal of the waste after a massive wildfire in 2011 that lapped at the edges of lab property. Los Alamos said about 100 shipments remained, and it hopes to send about 10 a week until the waste is cleared.

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