Cat litter is the focus of an inquiry into the release of radioactive material from a federal nuclear waste dump in New Mexico.
Federal investigators told New Mexico officials on May 21 that the use of a new kind of cat litter to pack nuclear waste in might have caused the leak in an underground storage facility on Feb. 14 that contaminated 22 employees with low levels of radiation. As a result, the facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, N.M., has been closed indefinitely.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory, a research facility for nuclear weapons that’s operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, runs the waste dump.
Cat litter has been used for years to pack hazardous waste because it absorbs moisture and neutralizes the environment around the barrels containing the waste. Los Alamos used inorganic litter, which contains nitrate salts, until 2013 when it switched to organic litter, which does not use the salts.
State officials say the litter in question was used to pack more than 500 barrels of waste at the Carlsbad dump in southeastern New Mexico, and may have been used at two other waste centers, one at Los Alamos’ facility in the northern part of the state, and one at a commercial dump in western Texas.
All three sites pose an “imminent and substantial” threat to public health and to the environment, state officials say.
Investigators theorize that there was a kind of chemical reaction between wastes packed with inorganic litter and waste packed with organic litter. They say they’re trying to determine who decided to switch to organic and how that transition was made.
Crews that have inspected the storage facility say a barrel of waste appeared to have undergone an abrupt temperature change that burned the container’s exterior and popped its lid.
Related Article: New Mexican Nuclear Facility Leak “No Threat” to Human Health
On May 23, Los Alamos said the affected barrels have been encased in protective containers and shipped to an unpopulated area with a fire-protection system. The containers are under around-the-clock observation to detect any changes, like temperature spikes or signs of smoldering.
Nevertheless, the lab issued a statement indicating that it still wasn’t certain of the cause. “Los Alamos is committed to securing and isolating this waste while we continue to investigate the cause of the February release,” the statement said.
Investigators say the leak may have originated with a waste container that was packed with organic cat litter to absorb moisture and that a chemical reaction within the containers may have led to the leak.
Meanwhile, the state has directed the Carlsbad dump to draw up a plan to seal off two subterranean storage centers that hold more than 350 containers of hazardous waste, as well as cat litter.
But they also stress that the cat litter connection is merely one of several possible causes for February’s leak. Still, it seems to be the chief suspect. Ryan Flynn, New Mexico’s environment secretary, directed Los Alamos and the Carlsbad dump to draw up plans to isolate all of the more than 500 barrels known to contain both organic and inorganic cat litter.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com