After dumping some $7 billion into a long-term storage facility for nuclear waste, deep in salt caverns some 40 miles outside of Carlsbad, NM, operations there have been halted – perhaps permanently – due to one person’s screwup. That caused an explosion that spewed radioactive material around the caverns, and DOE’s unsure as to whether it’s worth the risk to personnel to go back down there and try to repackage and stabilize the stuff.
The problem was caused by one guy who used the wrong kind of kitty litter to stabilize low-level waste at Lawrence Livermore Labs. Really – an off-brand of kitty litter shut it all down.
As Conca explains it, 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. So kitty litter is often mixed in barrels with the low-level waste that’s eventually sent to WIPP. What happened at WIPP, he believes, is that one of the radioactive shipments was mixed with organic instead of inorganic material. “‘Green’ cat litter,” he writes, 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.” The result: “solutions can ignite when they dry out.”
The ignition sparked a gas explosion, blowing the top off of the container and contaminating much of the facility. The question now is what to do about it all, and that’s very much up in the air at the moment. There are too many questions that need to be answered before any further action can even be contemplated:
Corrective action at WIPP could be a massive undertaking. How many other barrels contain the dangerous organic cat litter? Are all of those barrels underground at WIPP? Are they awaiting shipment at surface level in places like Los Alamos? Or are they located at the temporary storage site in Andrews, Texas, where some containers were transferred when problems arose at WIPP?
A multibillion-dollar operation, considered among the best of its kind on the planet, shut down because some guy decided that “all-natural, organic” kitty litter would be fine. Probably because it’s “better for the planet”.