Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Did Kitty Litter Cause Chemical Reaction That Led to Radiation Leak at WIPP in New Mexico?

The story was on May 13, 2014 on Reuters, before the latest update from the US Department of Energy on May 16, 2014.

It fondly reminded me of TEPCO's use of bath salt (as tracer) and shredded newspaper and baby diaper polymer to plug the leak at the water intake for Reactor 2 back in April 2011.

From Reuters (5/13/2014; emphasis is mine):

Kitty litter eyed as possible culprit in New Mexico radiation leak

Kitty litter used to absorb liquid in radioactive debris may have triggered a chemical reaction that caused a radiation leak at a below-ground U.S. nuclear waste storage site in New Mexico, a state environmental official said on Tuesday.

The waste disposal site, where drums of plutonium-tainted refuse from nuclear weapons factories and laboratories are buried in salt caverns 2,100 feet (640 meters) underground, has been shut down since unsafe radiation levels were first detected there on Feb. 14.

The leak of radiation, a small amount of which escaped to the surface and exposed 21 workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, ranks as the worst accident at the facility and one of the few blemishes on its safety record since it opened in 1999.

Investigations of the chamber where the leak occurred suggest a chemical reaction may have generated sufficient heat to melt seals on drums and boxes of contaminated sludge from the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, releasing radioisotopes such as plutonium, Energy Department officials have said.

Jim Blankenhorn, deputy manager with the contractor running WIPP, told a public meeting last week that a change in the materials used at Los Alamos to package waste may have triggered a reaction between nitrate salts and organic matter.

Kitty litter is in the field of theories,” Jill Turner, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department, said about a possible cause for the accident.

Kitty litter is used as an absorbent for liquid contained in radiological debris destined for WIPP, which does not accept fluid waste, Turner said.

Los Alamos, a leading U.S. nuclear weapons lab, and the WIPP contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

Dozens of drums of waste from Los Alamos that have been linked to the radiation accident are deposited in two separate waste disposal chambers at WIPP, managers have said.

The plant last week suspended shipments of that waste to a Texas-based commercial storage facility, which had received 25 drums between April 1 and May 1, said WIPP spokesman Brad Bugger.

The plant in the Chihuahuan Desert in southeastern New Mexico provides for permanent disposal of contaminated items like clothing and equipment from U.S. nuclear laboratories and weapons sites.

It is not expected to resume operations for at least 18 months and may take as long as three years to be fully operational, managers have said.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like misreporting to me. Here is the ORPS report - as close to the horse's mouth as you can get. There is no mention of kitty litter, organic or inorganic.

http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/NMED/Issues/WIPP_docs/5-2-14 ORPS Report.pdf

The money quote from the report:
"It was postulated that an energetic chemical reaction could result if an untreated nitrate compound came into contact with cellulosic material (Kimwipes) that were also present in the packages."

What are Kimwipes?

When it comes to laboratory wipes, only one brand comes to most lab technician's minds, KimWipes™. KimWipes™ are a revolutionary, economic laboratory wipe that can be used on even the most delicate surfaces. Use KimWipes™ to clean counters or use Kimwipes™ to clean instruments, even microscope slides and lenses! The extra-low lint rating and the removal of chemical additives makes KimWipes™ the ideal choice for cleaning and wiping in laboratories and research facilities around the world.

Anonymous said...

On page 65 of this report (http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/docs/mixed-waste/402-r-96-014.pdf), it states:

"Another area of concern is the issue of the thermal stability of sodium nitrate waste encapsulated in polyethylene. Encapsulating sodium nitrate, an oxidizer, with polyethylene, an organic, could potentially result in a chemically reactive mixture. Such a mixture of fuel and oxidizer could burn if exposed to sufficient thermal energy, and consequently release additional energy and gases."

If the waste contains sodium nitrate, then anything that contains carbon (i.e. paper or cellulose based substances or organic kitty litter or anything else organic) can theoretically combust or burn, because sodium nitrate is an oxidizer and carbon-containing substances are usually burnable. The resulting reaction will produce CO2, a gas, which may increase the pressure inside the container until the seal is broken.

Anonymous said...

The cone-shaped deposition pattern on the container tops has not caught anyone's attention yet?
Those containers have obviously been moved before the picture was taken.

Cone shapes on top, no bag remnants at the edges, and no MgO on the ground below.

Perhaps that's when the streaking on the barrel sides occurred, when being moved after the seals were popped? That would be the ideal scenario when referring to the streaking.

Anonymous said...

In this picture,


the discoloration is not from combustion. My bet is it is from concentrated acid fumes.
The DoE euphemism: from "nitric acid" comes "nitrate salts".

I've yet to see signs of combustion on ANY of the pictures they've posted.


Anonymous said...

Do they mean Diatomite?

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