HughPickens.com writes The LA Times reports that Los Alamos National Security, the contractor managing the nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, NM has been slapped with a $57-million reduction in its fees for 2014, largely due to a costly nuclear waste accident in which a 55-gallon drum packaged with plutonium waste from bomb production erupted after being placed in a 2,150-foot underground dump in the eastern New Mexico desert. Casks filled with 3.2 million cubic feet of deadly radioactive wastes remain buried at the crippled plant and the huge facility was rendered useless. The exact causes of the chemical reaction are still under investigation, but Energy Department officials say a packaging error at Los Alamos caused a reaction inside the drum. The radioactive material went airborne, contaminating a ventilation shaft that went to the surface giving low-level doses of radiation to 21 workers. According to a DOE report, the disaster at WIPP is rooted in careless contractors and lack of DOE oversight (PDF). "The accident was a horrific comedy of errors," says James Conca, a scientific advisor and expert on the WIPP. "This was the flagship of the Energy Department, the most successful program it had. The ramifications of this are going to be huge. Heads will roll." The accident is likely to cause at least an 18-month shutdown and possibly a closure that could last several years. Waste shipments have already backed up at nuclear cleanup projects across the country, which even before the accident were years behind schedule. According to the Times, the cost of the accident, including likely delays in cleanup projects across the nation, will approach $1 billion. But some nuclear weapons scientists say the fine is an overreaction. "It was a mistake by an individual — a terrible mistake — and Washington now wants to punish a lot of people," says Conca. "The amount of radiation that was released was trivial. As long as you don’t lick the walls, you can’t get any radiation down there. Why are we treating this like Fukushima?"
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