Could ‘Kitty Litter’ Be to Blame for Atomic Dump Radiation Leak?

Global Security Newswire Staff
May 13, 2014, 9:01 a.m.

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.

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