New Mexico regulators slap US government with $54 million in fines over hazardous waste violations
Radioactive nuclear symbol (AFP)

Reuters) - New Mexico regulators on Saturday hit the U.S. government with more than $54 million in fines for violations at a nuclear waste facility where a fire broke out and radiation was released in two mishaps earlier this year.

The state found 37 violations of its hazardous waste permits on the part of the U.S. Department of Energy at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, according to documents released by New Mexico's Environment Department.

“The health and safety of New Mexicans will always be our priority and we have to hold federal agencies accountable for safe operations in the state,” New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez said in a statement.

The state blamed the energy agency for major procedural problems that led to an improperly maintained salt truck catching fire at the Carlsbad plant on Feb. 7 and an improperly packaged Los Alamos National Laboratory barrel of waste rupturing at the site a week later, the documents showed.

The leak exposed 22 workers to low levels of radiation that were not expected to threaten their health, according to Nuclear Waste Partnership, a contractor that operates the facility.

The New Mexico Environment Department also found that the response by the contractor and the federal energy agency were “less than adequate.”

The state fined the energy agency $17.7 million for violations at the plant and $36.6 million for lab violations, documents showed.

Officials with the U.S. Energy Department and with the Nuclear Waste Partnership did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a salt mine where radioactive material is buried half a mile below ground, is not expected to be fully operational again for five years because of the incidents. The cost for initial recovery of the dump is estimated at $240 million, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

(This story corrects an attribution in the last paragraph)

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)