Nuclear kitty litter: Chemical reaction caused radioactive leak at Los Alamos waste plant

Nuclear kitty litter: Chemical reaction caused radioactive leak at Los Alamos waste plant
A violation of well-established procedures at a laboratory of the Los Alamos nuclear facility led to a radioactive material leak in February, resulting in the contamination of 22 workers and closure of America’s only permanent nuclear waste repository.

The preliminary report on the incident by the inspector general of the US Department of Energy holds Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) accountable for the permanent closure of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) nuclear waste repository, some 42km southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, 1km underground in an old salt mine.

On February 14 a barrel containing radioactive transuranic waste from Los Alamos lab ruptured at WIPP, contaminating the facility and exposing personnel to radiation.

The incident was the US’ only permanent nuclear waste repository’s worst in its 15-year history and forced a prolonged shutdown of the facility.

The cleanup operation is estimated to last three years and will cost over $500 million, with the total replacement of a ventilation system and exhaust shaft included.

The investigation revealed that the barrel had not been mishandled, but rather opened up due to unexpected chemical reaction inside the container. Two types of waste had been put together, despite clear instructions about their potential incompatibility.

The LANL’s “waste processing and safety-related control procedures should have prevented the addition of these potentially incompatible materials. However, the process failed in this matter," federal inspectors said in their highly-critical report.

The investigators found out that the nuclear waste barrel sprung a leak because highly acidic radioactive liquid was packed together organic cat litter to absorb moisture. The two created a chemical reaction.

A 2012 technical paper advised that nuclear waste drums containing nitrate salts should be treated with inorganic absorbent, whereas the lab used organic kitty litter absorbent instead, the report said.

The final results of the investigation are expected by the end of the year.

“Our review identified several major deficiencies in LANL's procedures for the development and approval of waste packaging and remediation techniques that may have contributed to the radiological event,” the inspector general said Wednesday as cited by AP.

The inspector issued a number of recommendations that the LANL should follow to correct its practices before the cleanup of the radioactive spill continues.

The watchdog that led the report, a group called the Southwest Research and Information Center, demanded the US government introduce tougher regulation at the lab and the waste dump, and find new contractors to manage both facilities.

“All of those entities made mistakes,” said the group’s head Don Hancock.

In a written response to the report, the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Security Management claimed on Wednesday that it is already addressing the recommendations to “learn from these events and improve our operational practices.”

Any processing of transuranic waste at the LANL was suspended in May for safety reasons, the DoE managers informed, also reporting of already imposed “additional precautionary protection measures to ensure our workers, the public and the environment are protected.”

As a result of the incident four lab workers have been reassigned, while the Department of Energy discontinued nuclear waste cleanup operations of the contractor that runs the lab, LANL reported.

The lab was found to have already spent several million dollars for costs related to the investigation, such as temporary storage of the drums and chemical analysis of their contents. The costs are expected to go up when the lab meets the recommendations.

Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear and lab watchdog, expressed satisfaction with the report placing blame for the contamination incident with the lab’s personnel. Mello expects lab officials to be held accountable for shocking violations of well-established procedures that led to catastrophic consequences and huge expenditures.

The nuclear waste created by the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s activities is generally safely stored in regularly monitored steel and glass structures.

Yet the problem is that there is no guarantee that some other barrels were also stuffed with incompatible waste that could initiate situations with hazardous chemical reactions.

So the lab is now busy verifying the exact contents of the containers listed, of those 500-plus remain in temporary storage at the waste repository, another 86 are kept at the LANL and 119 more are stored at yet another facility in West Texas.

According to estimates, decontamination of the complex in the southeastern New Mexico desert could be completed by 2016, yet the facility might remain completely operational until 2019, when the new ventilation system and exhaust shaft are in place.