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Troubled U.S. nuke lab has new woes: officials

HOUSTON, May 19 (Xinhua) -- A nuclear laboratory in the U.S. state of New Mexico packed dozens of waste containers with a type of kitty litter believed to have caused a radiation leak at another nuclear facility, posing a potentially "imminent" and "substantial" threat to public health and environment, officials said Monday.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, a leading nuclear weapons manufacturer, was found to have packed 57 barrels of nuclear waste with the kitty litter, which was used to absorb liquid in the waste, many of them stored outdoors on the lab's northern New Mexico campus or at a temporary site in Texas, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

New Mexico State Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn on Monday issued a formal order giving the lab two days to submit a plan for securing the waste containers.

Officials said earlier the kitty litter might be the cause of the radiation release at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico. They suspect a change of the kitty litter may have led to a chemical reaction inside the container, which caused the leak that has contaminated 21 workers.

Los Alamos used to ship its nuclear waste to the WIPP until the radiation leak shut down the repository more than three months ago. The laboratory then relocated some of its nuclear refuse to a private dump in west Texas before authorities ordered it to halt the shipment due to concerns about the suspected link between the waste containers and the radiation leak.

The nuclear weapons manufacturer said Friday that it "is fully cooperating" with state and federal officials and has taken extra precautions to ensure that similar waste drums at the lab and those sent to Texas "are in a safe and controlled configuration."

The nuclear leak happened on Feb. 14 when sensors detected unusual high levels of radioactive particles in the underground dump. It has been kept shuttered since then. Officials said last week it could be up to three years before full operations resume at the underground facility.

The WIPP stores "transuranic waste" leftover from nuclear weapons research and testing from the nation's past defense activities, according to the Energy Department's website. The waste includes clothing, tools, rags and other debris contaminated with radioactive elements, largely plutonium.

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