(Reuters) - An underground nuclear waste dump in New Mexico where operations were suspended after a radiation leak is of crucial importance to the United States and its reopening is a top priority for the Energy Department, the head of the agency said.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz made the remarks at a public meeting late on Monday in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the local economy is fueled by the nearby Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in the Chihuahuan Desert.
The plant, where waste from U.S. nuclear labs and weapons sites is entombed in a salt mine 2,100 feet underground, has been closed since a Feb. 14 radiological release contaminated disposal chambers and exposed 22 workers to low levels of radiation.
Preliminary findings of an investigation suggest the leak was tied to an improperly packaged container from Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe that was deposited in a salt cavern at the dump.
Energy Department officials have said a chemical reaction in the drum, which contained items tainted with radioisotopes such as plutonium, is believed to have generated sufficient heat to melt seals and eject materials.
The Energy Department plant is asking Congress for more than $100 million to underwrite cleanup efforts.
Government contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC, which runs the site, has said it might be three years before the waste repository is fully operational.
Shipments of waste from U.S. nuclear research and weapons facilities usually brought to WIPP are on hold and drums of debris are being stored in place as scientists probe the February accident.
Moniz sought on Monday night to assure the city of Carlsbad that there were no plans to close the plant.
"You stick with us and we're sticking with you," he told an audience that included Carlsbad leaders.
"WIPP has to come all the way back. It's going to take a little time. But this is really, absolutely a core facility for the country. This is a very, very high priority for us," he said.
Moniz predicted "bumps in the road," but urged New Mexico officials to continue to push for the resources needed to bring the plant back online.
His stop in Carlsbad came at the request of the state's congressional delegation, including U.S. Democratic Senator Tom Udall.
The plant "must be safely reopened ... with zero standards for radiation releases," Udall said at the meeting.