By Laura Zuckerman
May 15 (Reuters) - An official with the New Mexico city near a nuclear waste dump on Thursday urged managers of the facility to remove improperly packaged drums of toxic debris to prevent another accident like a leak in February that released high levels of radiation.
John Heaton, a former New Mexico lawmaker who chairs a nuclear task force assembled by the mayor of Carlsbad, pressed officials overseeing the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to remove potentially hazardous drums of refuse stored there.
"Are we going to play footsie for another three months?" Heaton asked U.S. Energy Department and Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC officials at a public meeting on Thursday. "How much longer before you make a decision to go get a forklift and go get those drums?"
The meeting came a day after the site marked three months since radiation contaminated the underground facility in an accident. That mishap was linked to a chemical reaction in drums of tainted sludge from Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, one of the nation's leading nuclear weapons labs.
Investigations suggest nitrate salts and a change at Los Alamos to the use of organic kitty litter instead of a non-organic type may have generated sufficient heat to melt seals on drums and boxes of radiological debris, Energy Department officials have said.
More containers of improperly packaged waste from Los Alamos pose potential hazards that should be addressed, Heaton said.
Tammy Reynolds, a recovery manager with the contractor, said scientists were still weighing risks based on a continuing probe of the accident, the first of its kind since the plant opened in 1999.
"At some point in time...we have to look at other options, but we don't know what those will be yet," she said.
Testing of surface air after the accident showed radiation levels that were elevated, but non-threatening to humans or the environment, according to the plant.
Managers said Thursday that 22 workers above ground ingested or inhaled trace amounts of radioisotopes but were exposed to no more than a person would get from a chest x-ray. (Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)