Santa Fe New Mexican, May 9, 2014: Nuke expert believes ‘kitty litter’ switch led to WIPP leak — An absorbent material similar to kitty litter is the likely cause of a radiation leak [...] according to a longtime nuclear expert. [...] Los Alamos National Laboratory [...] switched from using a clay- based absorbent in the drums [sent to WIPP] to a wheat-based absorbent — both made of the same materials used in different types of kitty litter, according to Jim Conca, a geochemist who worked for years at the lab and in environmental monitoring for WIPP. [...] The kitty litter switch could have created dried-out nitrate salts and led to a “mild” explosion in one or more of the waste containers, Conca said. [...] LANL, Department of Energy and WIPP did not specifically comment on the theory. [...] Conca is a nuclear power advocate and a WIPP believer, so he’s hoping his kitty litter theory proves correct. [...] The organic absorbents made of wheat or corn [...] “It absorbs like a sponge. If you let the salts dry out completely, they can ignite.”
Jim Conca, Forbes columnist who worked in environmental monitoring for WIPP: “I think it is the most likely cause, but there is still some room for doubt until they get to the drum that leaked. [It is] an awfully good thing this drum was in WIPP when it went off because if had been anywhere else, just think about what might have happened. So they need to act quickly, they need to corral all these drums and get them into WIPP right away, put them in Panel 7 and seal it off [...] it is incredibly important to act quickly. You don’t want to wait months and let the drums keep drying out. They need to be gathered quickly and get them to WIPP. By being stupid, we risk doing this wrong and making it worse.”
Forbes, May 10, 2014: Nuclear Waste Leak Traced To — Kitty Litter [...] Cat litter has been used for decades in radiochemistry labs and nuclear facilities to stabilize certain radwastes [...] Unfortunately, someone working with this waste, before it was to be shipped to WIPP, used a new “green” cat litter, made with materials like wheat or corn. These organic litters do not have the silicate properties needed to chemically stabilize nitrate the correct way. [...] We still need more visual evidence to be absolutely certain. The drum thought to have burst is about 10 rows back from the waste face. [...] We know which drums were treated with this green litter. Some are stored at WIPP and some are stored at other places. [...] Seal off Panel 6 with the normal metal bulkheads at either end. This will contain any event from these drums. All other drums with green litter should quickly be corralled from where they are, shipped under containment, emplaced in Panel 7 at WIPP and the panel sealed off. It would be the safest thing to do. [...] Another important point is that these materials become less stable when they’re heated. So in the mean time, it is important to make sure that these drums are segregated and kept in a cool environment. Summer is coming. [...] We need to act quickly.
See also: Video: WIPP nuclear site may close for several years -- Explosion in multiple drums suspected -- "Very much a cause for concern" -- Top official gives 'fiery speech' calling for public to be told what has happened -- DOE refuses to name source of nuclear waste
Published: May 10th, 2014 at 6:00 pm ET