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It turns out going green isn't always good for the environment.

Cause of WIPP Radiation Leak: Kitty Litter?

Alex Jacobs

Right now 850 Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) workers are above ground, not doing much but waiting or "performing surface facilities maintenance or assisting with procedure reviews and revisions" as investigators from the Department of Energy (DOE), New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) and a small WIPP crew continue looking for clues to the source of the radiation leak. There are two hypotheses, one is that something had gone wrong with the supports inside the cavern where waste was being stored. That means a piece of salt rock, a steel support or bolt had fallen onto one of the sealed barrels, puncturing it and releasing radiation into the air. Officials now view this as unlikely and there is no evidence to support it. The cavern where the radiation monitor went off had been dug recently, so the chances that supports had eroded or collapsed were slim.

RELATED: WIPP Radiation Leak Study Released; DOE Finds Probable Cause

The second is that something had gone wrong inside one of the radioactive containers and that the radioactive material had become hot for some reason, expanding and puncturing a steel barrel from the inside. Photos by DOE investigators showed that a waste container’s lid was unsealed, and dust around the lid had turned yellow from heat emanating from inside. Each barrel is labeled to track where it came from. The punctured barrel originated from Los Alamos National Labs. There are around 500 barrels of nuclear waste with a type of kitty litter suspected of being the cause of the leak at WIPP, 57 were stored on the Los Alamos campus, more than 100 were in storage at a temporary site in west Texas, and more than 360 were stored at WIPP.

Jim Conca, PhD, a geologist who worked for years at WIPP and is now a blogger on energy issues, believes that an organic type of kitty litter probably caused the leak in a mini-explosion or a long slow burn. Inorganic cat litter has properties that make it ideal for stabilizing nitrates in radioactive material, for ensuring that it doesn’t dry out and become dangerously hot. This type of kitty litter is often mixed in barrels with the low-level waste that’s eventually sent to WIPP. Conca theorizes that one of the radioactive shipments was mixed with organic instead of inorganic material. He wrote, "Green cat litter is made with materials like wheat or corn…these organic litters do not have the silicate properties needed to chemically stabilize nitrate the correct way…these solutions can ignite when they dry out."

Officials really don’t want to admit that an innocuous thing like kitty litter is the cause for shutting down the $7.2 billion WIPP facility. Last week, a DOE press release confirmed that kitty litter "may have caused a chemical reaction" that lead to the leak. Conca said that a non-scientist probably made the simple decision to switch the organic for the inorganic. This is outside the procedural chain of command, and when you are dealing with anything nuclear, you don’t ever deviate from the procedure. Conca concluded, "In this case, it could shut down the most successful nuclear repository in history."

There are still questions about WIPP’s short and long term future, the 1000 workers are concerned because some of the paperwork is now being relocated to Tennessee. New Mexico Environment Department wants these contaminated panels permanently sealed after they are finished the investigation. Officials have a cleanup and remedial plan and are saying WIPP could be closed for up to three years before full operations resume at the underground facility.

Los Alamos National Laboratory said the containers in question were secured in special containers and moved to an isolated area with a fire-protection system. They were also under round-the-clock monitoring for any change in temperature, smoke or other abnormalities. The operator of the Texas facility is keeping a close eye on the containers stored there.

DOE has to determine whether the safety benefits of stabilizing or repackaging the material in these drums are justified by the risk to personnel who would attempt to do the work. If DOE decides stabilizing or repackaging the material is unjustified, that would close WIPP for good. It could be a major setback for the Nuclear Industry or open up doors for another nuclear waste facility as the nuclear waste streams will not stop.

Alex Jacobs
Santa Fe
May 26, 2014

Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a poet and visual artist based in Santa Fe


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