The explosive release of plutonium from the underground tunnels of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project created to store nuclear waste from national laboratories long associated with UC Berkeley has raised a host of questions, many unanswered.
The Valentine’s Day “incident” at the underground facility near New Mexico’s famous Carlsbad Caverns has closed the country’s only nuclear waste storage facility for up to three years and raised fears among New Mexico resident.
The Department of Energy has downplayed concerns, saying the release poses no more danger than a chest X-ray, but statements that plutonium had been detected in the air at some distance from the facility cast doubts on that claim, given that even a microscopic particle of the man-made nuclear isotope can be fatal.
Now comes word that the trouble may have resulted from the switch from a mineral-based cat litter used as an absorbent filler in drums and other storage containers of waste to one made from wheat may have precipitated the “event.”
First up, a report from SimplyInfo:
WIPP Officials Unable To Answer Questions About Incident
Officials from WIPP and DOE were in attendance at a weekly town hall meeting on the series of incidents at the WIPP nuclear site. A rather long list of blunt questions came from the local audience, online audience and the press. The official from the WIPP contractor and DOE were unable to answer many of the questions asked. There was no one from Los Alamos (the source of the exploding barrels) or NMED (New Mexico Environmental Department) in attendance at the meeting.
What they were able to tell people was that the entry on May 15th did give them some new information. The barrels in question were in row 16, column 4 towards the top of the stack. The two drums that failed contained “organic material”. They further clarified it to be nitrate salts with organic absorbents. We were able to confirm through other channels that the organic material was a wheat based cat litter. They confirmed that 55 of the barrels in panel 7, room 7 were the same barrel type from Los Alamos that contain nitrate salts and organic absorbent. The nitrate salts were a byproduct of plutonium processing at Los Alamos and were described as a sludge from evaporators.
More from the Carlsbad Current-Argus:
Next WIPP entry will seek samples; new photos and video upcoming
Investigators are readying for the next step in the tedious process of finding the cause of the February radiation leak at WIPP.
Two entries were made by investigators underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, located 26 miles southeast of Carlsbad, and the next entry planned for the near future will focus “less on photographic evidence and more on samples,” according to WIPP Recovery Manager Jim Blankenhorn.
Crews entered the salt mine twice this week, including once on Thursday and the new photographs and video are expected to be processed and ready to view by Friday. Previous entries on May 15 and May 19 showed photographic evidence that a hole was blown into the upper-lid of one waste drum that originated from Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well as discoloration on the side of the panel according to Blankenhorn.
DOE investigators checked about four or five of the rows looking for further evidence of either heat damage or any breaches in the transuranic nuclear waste containers, and no additional drums showed signs of breaches according to Blankenhorn. He added that a lot of heat damage was apparent on the top of the room, while a little heat damage was visible on the middle slip sheets of the drums.
And still more from the Associated Press via the Minneapolis Star Tribune on that wheat-based kitty litter:
Has cat litter turned barrels of New Mexico nuclear waste into ticking time bombs?
The cat litter was used to absorb moisture in sealed barrels of nuclear waste at Los Alamos, home to the some of the world’s finest scientists. Officials have said cat litter has long been used to pack waste because of its absorption and neutralizing qualities. It’s commonly used, for example, by people to soak up oil spills in driveways. But Los Alamos switched from nonorganic to organic litter for packing waste in 2013, and the theory is that some kind of chemical reaction occurred between waste containing nitrate salts and the new litter. Officials said they are investigating who made the decision to make the switch and what process was followed.
Investigators have said the litter theory is just one possible cause being explored, but it is being studied seriously enough to prompt New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn this week to order Los Alamos and the underground nuclear dump to put together plans for immediately isolating all 500-plus barrels of waste known to contain nitrate salts and organic cat litter. Based on evidence from crews that have been down in the mine since the release, a barrel of waste from Los Alamos experienced some type of “heat event” that burned the exterior and popped the waste container’s lid.
Finally, this from the Verge:
There are no indications that anyone has been injured from the radiation leak. (All employees went through examinations for radiation exposure; a DOE press release says most workers were not affected, and those who were “received less exposure than a person receives from a chest X-ray.”) But for months, nothing has changed. The standstill remains. WIPP’s 850 or so employees are mainly sitting around, waiting (or “performing surface facilities maintenance or assisting with procedure reviews and revisions”) while investigators from the US Department of Energy (DOE), the New Mexico Environment Department and elsewhere attempt to figure out what happened.
Initially, there were two hypotheses. The first was that something had gone wrong with the supports inside the cavern where waste was being stored. If that were the case, it meant a piece of salt rock or a steel support had fallen into one of the sealed barrels, puncturing it and releasing radiation into the air.
“That was an unlikely possibility,” says Norbert T. Rempe, PhD, a retired geologist who spent decades as a principal engineer at WIPP. The cavern where the radiation monitor went off had been dug only recently, so the chances that supports had eroded or collapsed were probably slim.
The shutdown of the New Mexico facility will leave the bay Area’s nuclear weapons development facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory without a place to store all that hot stuff created as a by-product of crafting next generation nuclear weapons.