AP, July 4, 2014 (emphasis added): Teams of scientists and engineers are still trying to determine exactly what caused a barrel [at New Mexico's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)] from Los Alamos to burst [...] Despite hundreds of experiments to date, investigators have been unable to create any reaction that would have caused the container to leak like it did […] The accident has [...] indefinitely shuttered the mine […] According to the memo obtained by The Associated Press, [Los Alamos National Laboratory's Principal Associate Lab Director Terry Wallace] told employees at a meeting Monday that the probe is focused on 16 barrels of highly acidic, nitrate-salt-bearing waste, including the drum that leaked at [WIPP]. Ten of the other barrels [11 total, including the one that ruptured] are also underground at the [WIPP] mine [...] Wallace is quoted in the memo as saying that a technical review “identified certain conditions that might potentially cause an exothermic reaction inside a drum. Among them are neutralized liquids, a low pH and the presence of metals.”
According to the AP’s article above, the investigation is now focusing on 11 barrels in the WIPP underground, yet only a few weeks ago the AP reported: “Officials say 6… potentially explosive containers of waste [were shipped] from Los Alamos National Laboratory… [Five] are being stored at a site in West Texas [and] one at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [believed to be the source of the radiation leak].
Albuquerque Journal interview with Miles Smith, EnergySolutions’ vice president of Southwest operations, July 3, 2014: “We don’t believe the combination we put into the drums, we don’t think it has the ability to start burning on its own. It needs an outside source of ignition [...] It doesn’t look like the kitty litter was the cause [...] I don’t believe [absorbent materials] caused the explosion or the fire. [One of the two suspect products, an acid neutralizer, is not a problem]. Its safety sheet says it is not incompatible [The other product, a base neutralizer, is incompatible with the nitrates in WIPP waste but this neutralizer wasn’t used in the WIPP-bound barrels.] We think there are other things that caused the drum to later catch fire [there] are a lot of things out there [to investigate, including a truck fire and an electrical surge in the days before the leak.]
Albuquerque Journal, July 3, 2014: Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center, a WIPP watchdog, said Smith’s comments are consistent with those of state Environment Department [...] but noted that no one from [Los Alamos National Lab] has weighed in. “I would say I’ve always been skeptical of the kitty litter issue,” he said. “Anybody with a cat knows that kitty litter itself is not combustible. It’s got to be kitty litter and something else.”
Don Hancock, Southwest Research and Information Center, June 25, 2014: [...] the current data show that there are increased amounts of radioactivity going into the environment as contaminated filters are being changed. [...] DOE presumes that the ventilation system and the exhaust shaft are too contaminated to use in a re-opened facility. On June 18, the House Appropriations Committee approved $20 million dollars [...] as a down payment for new ventilation and a new exhaust shaft. [...] it is very difficult or impossible to determine exactly what happened and how much contamination was released.
See also: Radiation spikes at WIPP nuclear facility -- Hits highest levels since initial hours of radioactive release in February -- Document link removed from official website -- Gov't analyzing samples for "potential impact on human health"
Published: July 5th, 2014 at 2:28 pm ET