CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — A major part of a multimillion-dollar effort to rebuild a ventilation system at the U.S. government's only underground nuclear waste repository is expected to be done by next year, officials announced last week.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded a contract for the construction of a utility shaft essential to the project, the Carlsbad Current Argus reports .

The shaft was designed with a 26-foot (7.9-meter) diameter, extending 2,275 feet (693 meters) underground.

The rebuilt system of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, is intended to add air to the underground and allow the placement of mining and other waste to occur simultaneously.

Nuclear Waste Partnership, the contractor that operates the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant's day-to-day activities, announced the $75 million contract was awarded to Harrison Western-Shaft Sinkers.

"This is an extremely important day for us," Nuclear Waste Partnership President Bruce Covert said. "After an exhaustive and thorough procurement process, we believe the Harrison Western joint venture is the right contractor to undertake this important project."

The contract also included two access drifts, or tunnels, to be mined and connect the shaft to the rest of the underground.

Work on the ventilation system's primary components began last summer under a $135 million contract with Carlsbad-based Critical Applications Alliance, and the project was expected to be finished by 2021.

U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-Las Cruces, said the project was essential to ensuring ongoing operations at WIPP to dispose of transuranic waste generated during nuclear operations across the country.

"Southern New Mexico plays a critical role in our national security, including the part it plays in permanently disposing nuclear waste generated from decades of defense testing across the country," she said.

The ventilation overhaul was prompted by a radiation release in 2014 that contaminated parts of the repository and forced its closure for nearly three years.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and Nuclear Waste Partnership were recently under federal investigation regarding worker exposure to hazardous chemicals related to a lack of airflow underground, records show.

The Department of Energy's Office of Enterprise Assessments filed a notice on Jan. 29 of its intent to investigate the Nuclear Waste Partnership.

Between July and October 2018, employees in the underground nuclear waste repository were potentially overexposed to carbon tetrachloride, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, read the notice, including a series of heat-stress incidents, officials said.

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Information from: Carlsbad Current-Argus, http://www.currentargus.com/

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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