A specialist thinks he has pinpointed the cause of a February radiation leak at a federal atomic waste dump -- a packing material similar to kitty litter.
The firm responsible for preparing containers of radiation-contaminated materials for shipment from the Los Alamos National Laboratory to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant for underground storage changed the type of absorbent material in packing the containers, says Jim Conca, who previously worked at both the nuclear weapons facility and in environmental monitoring for the New Mexico repository.
The absorbent material is used to sponge up any liquid in the drums and remains in the containers when they are stored in the tunnels of the nuclear waste dump, the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper reported Conca as saying. This switch from a clay-based absorbent to a wheat-based filler material could have produced nitrate salts that caused a "mild" explosive reaction to occur in one of the drums, according to Conca, a science columnist for Forbes.
Officials from the Energy Department, which is still investigating the cause of the February leak, did not respond to Conca's theory, nor did officials from Los Alamos or the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Underground operations at the waste site have been halted since the leak occurred. An Energy Department statement earlier this month indicated that a chemical reaction in one of the drums sent over from Los Alamos could be responsible for the emissions release.
The official in charge of the recovery effort at the WIPP facility last week said it would probably take between 18 months and three years to fully reopen the nuclear repository.