By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - The United States' only permanent nuclear waste disposal site got the go-ahead on Friday to resume operations nearly three years after a radiation leak shut down the New Mexico facility.
The U.S. Department of Energy said in a statement that disposal of nuclear waste at the site near Carlsbad could begin again as early as next month, following two safety reviews and corrective actions.
The announcement came one day after New Mexico state officials said they had given their approval for operations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) to resume.
The site in southeastern New Mexico was shut down indefinitely in February 2014, when a barrel of plutonium-contaminated debris entombed half a mile beneath the desert floor ruptured, spewing radiation that leaked to the surface.
The accident, in which 22 workers were exposed, was the facility's worst mishap since it opened in 1999.
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"Tremendous credit should go to the WIPP workers for what we have accomplished this year," Phil Breidenbach, president and project manager for Nuclear Waste Partnership, which operates the site under a federal contract, said in the Friday statement.
The site was built for the disposal of radioactive refuse generated for decades by the Department of Energy's network of nuclear weapons laboratories and development facilities.
Department of Energy inspectors identified 21 issues that need to be resolved before the site could reopen. On Friday, the agency confirmed that the corrections at the site were made.
Federal investigators who examined the 2014 accident cited chronic lapses in safety procedures that led to chemically incompatible materials, including organic kitty litter used as an absorbent, being packaged together in one of the waste drums sent to the disposal site from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The mix of organic material and nitrate salts inside the barrel sparked a chemical reaction, causing a buildup of heat and gases that breached the container, the Department of Energy said in a report.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Richard Chang)