Going organic… clobbers the US’s nuclear waste repository

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.



8 responses to “Going organic… clobbers the US’s nuclear waste repository

  1. Keep in mind the WIPP houses low-level waste – materials that are not radioactive themselves, but which have possibly become radioactive through contact contamination with radioative materials.
    This includes a wide variety of materials used to handle medical isotopes (bottles, syringes, cleansing wipes, and the containers they are kept in pending disposal), tools and apparatus used to prepare isotopes for whatever use is intended, and even human waste from patiens who have been administered radioisotopes for medical diagnostic or treatment.
    The Federal Government still has failed to provide a waste repository for high-level radioactive waste – waste containing or contaminated with ‘source material’ used as fuel in nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a timetable and procedure for constructing a permanent, underground repository for high-level radioactive waste by the mid-1990s. The DOE is not in compliance.

  2. The US and Canada should start reprocessing nuclear fuel and then we won’t need to store so much highly radioactive waste. Works very well for France, could also work here.

  3. Nuclear waste should be diluted to the point where there is little impact relative to background radiation. Hmmmm, how about a nice big deep ocean trench where the compounds would be like Christmas presents to the bacteria living down there? If you add in storage system designed to allow the contents to leak slowly over time, then as it leaks (and decays) it gets nicely dluted. That is still the best plan and if it wasn’t for the actions of groups with an anti-nuclear agenda, this would still be going on.

    The problems of leakage from repositories can (in the UK at least) be traced back to the storage on land of drums of waste which were designed to leak slowly when they were dumped into the ocean. When these “leak by design” drums are kept in a storage facility then do what they are designed to do – leak – the resulting radioactive compounds do not disperse, but often remain as a concentrated plume setting off alarms and getting everyone’s panties in a bunch. Sounds an awful lot like what is being reported in this story…..

  4. At WIPP, the workers have done exactly what they were told to do, in a safe manner. They received shipping containers, removed the barrels, and placed those barrels underground. At the National Labs, the workers have done exactly what they were told to do, in a safe manner. They characterized the waste they created, packed it up, and sent it to a holding area. The problem appears to be with the company hired to process the waste before shipping it out. This processing used to be done by the National Lab people, but they weren’t trained and certified in doing things, and obviously couldn’t be trusted, so private companies were hired to do the processing. Nobody has reported on the political donations being made by these private companies that received these multi-million dollar contracts, nor on their hiring practices, nor on their affiliations with other companies providing them with the packing material that they are using in these waste drums. All of the focus of news articles has been on the people/organizations at each end of the waste stream, and none of the focus has been on the people/organizations who might have actually created the unsafe conditions we are finding.
    So, does anyone know what is created when nitrates and cellulose are combined? The news items have been dancing around that one, also. Almost like the curious circumstance of the dog barking in the night.

  5. another triumph for ‘green’ stuff… ha ha ha ha

    oh yeah BTW, we can get rid of ALL high level nuclear ‘waste’ by burning it in fast neutron reactors. Jimmy Carter wrote an EO forbidding them because they are known as ‘breeder’ reactors that create plutonium in the burning process.

    The big joke is that all that stuff can be recycled into new fuel pellets and burned and burned until it is low level residue easily disposed of with half lives on the order of a coup years and ‘cold’ in a couple decades.

  6. Nice theory stpaulchuck. Care to list any successful breeder reactor programs? Folks have been trying to build them for decades with no success. The French do reprocess their fuels but they’re just piling it up, waiting for a successful reactor design that can burn the now-useless fuel. Thorium reactors, and other designs, also sound really cool on paper. Maybe some day we’ll have more effective fission power systems. For now, breeders and other alternative reactors are just vaporware.

  7. If the people making decisions about important stuff like this were well educated or trained, they would know the difference between cat litters and, at the very least, demand thorough testing before changing them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s