LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Federal officials are scrambling to contain hundreds of barrels of radioactive nuclear waste at two sites in New Mexico and one site in Texas after discovering that they were packed in a potentially explosive mixture of cellulose from wheat-based organic kitty litter and nitrate salts. Investigators suspect that the combination of the two compounds is to blame for blowing the lid off a drum of nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site in Carlsbad, N.M., in February, causing a radioactive leak that contaminated 22 workers and the surrounding land.
On May 20, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) sent an order to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Waste Partnership, a contractor that operates the WIPP site, giving them until May 30 to propose a plan for sealing two underground panels at WIPP that contain the compromised nuclear waste.
One of the panels, packed to capacity, contains 313 drums of waste. Another partially filled panel where the February incident occurred contains 55 drums. At least two of 57 drums packed with the potentially explosive kitty litter mixture are known to be at WIPP and may be compromising all of the other barrels of nuclear waste. The risk of other explosions has the facility on high alert.
The radioactive waste comes from decades of nuclear bomb production at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in northern New Mexico. The other potentially unstable drums are either at Los Alamos or a commercial nuclear waste dump in Andrews, Texas; government officials haven’t publicly disclosed where they are.
“Based on the evidence presented to NMED, the current handling, storage, treatment and transportation of the hazardous nitrate salt bearing waste containers at LANL may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment,” the order signed by NMED Secretary Ryan Flynn states.
Officials are currently investigating whether a switch from inorganic kitty litter to organic kitty litter used to pack the nuclear waste explains the volatile nature of the mixture.
WIPP is the federal government’s sole permanent repository for low- and mid-level nuclear waste from Los Alamos and other nuclear facilities. The recent radiation leak isn’t the only near-disaster to occur at the site. Nine days before that incident, a truck hauling salt in the underground storage facilities caught fire.
Although officials don’t believe the truck fire contributed to the radiation leak, the Associated Press reports that “Initial investigations into both accidents have blamed them on a slow erosion of the safety culture at the 15-year-old, multibillion-dollar site.”