Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2014
After months of investigation, federal officials are finally closer to understanding what caused the February radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in southeastern New Mexico — and the evidence points to organic kitty litter.
On May 5, crews from the Department of Energy (DOE) discovered melted plastic and rubber on one of the 55-gallon waste drums from the Los Alamos National Laboratory stored in Panel 7, Room 7 — the WIPP area suspected to be the origin of the leak. Photographs later taken in the storage area, which is carved into a massive salt bed 2,000 feet underground, show evidence that heat and probably a small explosion made a hole in at least one container, leading to the leak. One-ton bags of magnesium oxide, placed on top of waste containers to help stop the spread of leaks and designed to last 10,000 years, were also damaged.
Jim Conca, a scientist who worked at WIPP from 2000 to 2010, has publicly shared his theory that the reaction was caused by a change from non-organic to organic kitty litter, which is packed in the barrels to soak up any liquid waste. (WIPP’s congressional mandate only allows it to accept solid radioactive waste.)
Inorganic cat litter, made with materials like diatomaceous earth, can help stabilize nitrates in radioactive materials, ensuring they don’t become too hot, and is routinely used at nuclear laboratories. But Conca and others suspect organic cat litter was packed into about 500 barrels at the Los Alamos lab instead — probably due to a bad decision by a purchasing agent.
“‘Green’ cat litter is made with materials like wheat or corn,” according to Conca. “These organic litters do not have the silicate properties needed to chemically stabilize nitrate the correct way. Solutions can ignite when they dry out,” Conca said.
DOE officials confirmed May 22 that a change in kitty litter “may have caused a chemical reaction” that led to the February 14 release, which doused at least 22 WIPP workers with radiation and has caused the facility to remain closed. About 350 of the other barrels that contain the volatile organic litter are in storage alongside the unsealed barrel at WIPP, but some were diverted to a privately-run waste dump in Andrews, Texas, and some remain onsite at Los Alamos.
The Andrews dump has taken extra precautions to seal the unstable barrels at its site, but the fact that some remain above ground at the Los Alamos facility is troubling to Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer at Fairewinds Energy Education, who says the barrels will become more and more unstable as the New Mexico desert sun heats them. Los Alamos has been under a tight schedule to move its plutonium contaminated waste before the peak of wildfire season. In 2011, a massive wildfire reached the edges of the property where the waste is currently stored.
The New Mexico Environment Department issued an administrative order May 21 requiring the DOE and its contractor Nuclear Waste Partnership to submit a detailed plan for expedited closure of Panel 6 and Panel 7, Room 7, where the affected barrels are stored. A similar May 19 order required the Los Alamos National Lab to isolate all suspect waste drums. The Lab claims to have complied by keeping its remaining barrels under 24-hour surveillance in a fire-protected area. The State Environment Secretary has publicly vented his frustration with a lack of transparency on the part of the site’s federal operators.
The DOE has estimated it will take between 18 months and three years to have the WIPP site ready to resume full operations. This is the DOE’s first ever attempt to clean up a contaminated underground radioactive waste storage site, so its estimates are speculative.
Per Peterson of UC-Berkeley’s Department of Nuclear Engineering told The Verge May 23 that permanent shut-down of the $7.2 billion facility was a real possibility.
“Expert assessment will be needed … 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 this work.”— ASP
— Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Mar. 23; Nuclear Threat Initiative, Apr. 24; AP, May 8 & 17; Indian Country Today, May 9; Carlsbad Current Argus, May 12 & 23; Albuquerque Journal, May 15; CNN Video Interview with Arnie Gunderson, May 20; The Verge, May 23, 2014