Safely disposing of nuclear waste is a big issue. There are both technical challenges (which are manageable) and.. there are lots and lots of political, NIMBY, and “just no nukes anywhere” tree huggers.
The US has the “Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)” near Carlsbad, New Mexico. It’s a group of repurposed salt (yes, as in that white stuff) mines, which have been the final destination for a good chunk of radioactive waste material for the past couple of decades.
Until… some radiation alarms went off in mid February, and everything came to a halt.
The reason? well, put down anything spillable and read on:
One of the steel barrels containing radioactive material in the mine had bulged and broken apart. (Note that it was in the, so to speak, “open area” of the cavern and not buried).
And the cause is… sit down…. the wrong brand of cat litter.
In general, cat litter is a great substance for mixing with the misc waste products. Normally it’s inert and does a good job of absorbing/binding the material.
However, in this case (quoting from the article in “The Verge”):
What happened at WIPP, he believes, is that one of the radioactive shipments was mixed with organic instead of inorganic material. “‘Green’ cat litter,” he writes, is “made with materials like wheat or corn. These organic litters do not have the silicate properties needed to chemically stabilize nitrate the correct way.” The result: “solutions can ignite when they dry out.” In other words, the whole problem at WIPP — the radiation leak, the months-long stall in operations, the worries over safety — results from one person’s mess up.