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Underground fire shuts down nuclear repository in southeastern New Mexico; 6 treated for smoke

CARLSBAD, N.M. - A truck fire Wednesday forced workers to evacuate the southeastern New Mexico site where the federal government seals away its low-grade nuclear waste, including plutonium-contaminated clothing and tools.

Six people were treated for smoke inhalation and released a short while later after a truck hauling salt caught fire at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad.

All employees were evacuated from the underground site after the fire broke out about 11 a.m., and none of the radioactive waste was affected, plant officials said.

Authorities said they weren't sure what caused the blaze.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is the nation's first and only deep geological nuclear repository. It takes plutonium-contaminated waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory and defence projects, and buries it in rooms cut from underground salt beds.

At an afternoon news conference, officials said the fire occurred on a truck in the facility's north mine, the Carlsbad Current-Argus newspaper reported. Nuclear waste is stored in the south mine, officials said.

Fire suppression systems and rescue teams were immediately activated, and all waste handling operations were suspended, officials said.

A spokeswoman answering an emergency line Wednesday evening said it was unclear if the fire was still burning or when the site might reopen. The spokeswoman, Sonna Herrick, said carbon monoxide readings indicated the fire was out, but crews would not be able to confirm that or investigate the cause of the fire until they get permission to go underground. Any re-entry must be approved by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Republican Rep. Steve Pearce issued a statement characterizing the event as "minor fire incident."

"It is critically important to note that at no point did the fire threaten the waste disposed of at the WIPP, nor was the community or public ever at risk," he said.

The New Mexico facility receives 17 to 19 shipments each week from sites around the country, including Los Alamos and installations in Idaho, Illinois and South Carolina.

Nevada's Yucca Mountain is another underground site built as a potential repository for used nuclear fuel, but it is not operational, said Rod McCullum, the director of used-fuels programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

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