New theory about WIPP barrel leak: Trace metals + acidic waste + organic kitty litter = Exothermic reaction. And what does this bad chemistry mean for the treatment of low-level waste in Texas?


The Santa Fe New Mexican reported yesterday:

A glove used to process nuclear waste at Los Alamos National Laboratory and metallic residue from that process have grabbed the attention of investigators probing the cause of a radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, a lab official told lawmakers Wednesday.

A drum of waste that burst Feb. 14 at WIPP is suspected of releasing the radiation that shut down WIPP and halted shipments of waste from LANL — generated during decades of nuclear weapons development — to the underground storage site near Carlsbad. That container held a volatile mix: a lead-laden glove, highly acidic waste, organic kitty litter and trace metal residue, according to Nan Sauer, associate director for chemistry, life and earth sciences at LANL.

The new theory seeks to explain why investigators have so far been unable to recreate the accident:

Based on experiments conducted as part of the investigation, organic kitty litter and nitrate salts alone have not proved to be capable of causing a chemical reaction like the one at WIPP, Sauer said.

Commenting on the testimony, a member of the New Mexico state legislature may have expressed why some of us are concerned about the processing of low-level radioactive waste:

It’s interesting that we went for this extended period of time with no incident, and then all of a sudden we take components, you put it in a drum, you characterize it and six weeks later we have an incident,” said Rep. Donald Bratton, R-Hobbs.

For example, the rules governing processing of low-level waste in Texas allow for a certain percentage of incidental contamination attendant to the processing of mixed nuclear waste. If something as minor as a small amount of metallic residue can change the fundamental chemistry of what was thought to be inert waste at Los Alamos, who knows what the incidental residue from blended waste processing might add to otherwise inert low-level waste?


About Robert Singleton

By day, I work for a call center. In my spare time, I try to save my hometown (and planet) from a nearly constant onslaught of greedheads, lunatics and land developers. I live in a fictional town called Austin, Texas, where I go to way too many meetings.
This entry was posted in Department of Energy, Los Alamos National Lab, Low-level radioactive waste, Waste Control Specialists, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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