Environment

Organic Kitty Litter Caused New Mexico Radiation Leak

| by Sarah Fruchtnicht

A radiation leak that shut down the federal government’s only permanent nuclear waste dump was caused by kitty litter, authorities said.

Scientists had begun using a new type of kitty litter, which is mixed with toxic waste to absorb liquid in drums stored underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. The dump 26 miles from Carlsbad can’t accept liquid waste. 

Officials believe the kitty litter caused a chemical reaction with another substance, melting nuclear waste barrels and exposing several employees to radiation poisoning.

Jim Conca, who worked at the plant from 2000 to 2010, told the Carlsbad Current-Argus, that the plant recently switched from non-organic to organic litter.

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"I'm just dying to know why this happened and who approved it, because it was a dumb idea. You just can't make a change to the procedure without reviewing it,” Conca said.

Without confirming that it was in fact kitty litter being used, WIPP Recovery Manager Jim Blankenhorn said something containing nitrate salt caused a chemical reaction in the drums.

The Department of Energy is testing three waste streams from the leak to determine the nature of the chemical composition.

On Monday, investigators reported that they saw melted plastic and rubber on drums and boxes of waste in the mine. This indicated something is generating heat in the storage facility, which houses more than 90,000 cubic meters of waste.

Reports in March said that toxic waste was being stored in the parking lot after the dump site was shuttered in February, but Conca says he stands by the facility's safety record.

"It wasn't a safety fault of WIPP," Conca added. "I just hope it doesn't take years to get back on track because it would be a shame. It is wrong to erase 15 years of a perfect record. Look at the chemical industry or the oil industry: People die from explosions and no one calls to shut down the oil industry."

Sources: Newser, Carlsbad Current-Argus