Nuclear waste spill: How a pro-organic push sparked $240m blunder

The wrong kitty litter led to an almighty clear-up job

Worstall on Wednesday There's a rather dry but absolutely fascinating document out from the US Department of Energy, which you can download in all its couple of hundred page glory here [PDF]. It's about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad in New Mexico.

This is where the Yanks send off all those barrels of radioactive nasties to sit out eternity in the middle of the Salado Formation salt deposits. Pretty much nothing happens down there, it's possibly the most geologically and environmentally stable place we know of. Slightly speculative, of course, but we don't think anything's going to happen there for a few tens of millions of years. It therefore seems like a good place to put stuff for a few hundred thousand.

Except our problem is that on Valentine's Day last year, one of those barrels popped, spraying those nasties around rather. Nice love letter to Gaia, there. No, we're not happy about that. So, an investigation took place into what happened and here's the main conclusion:

The Technical Assessment Team (TAT) is an independent team of technical experts that evaluated the mechanisms and chemical reactions contributing to the failure of a waste drum at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). In its report, the TAT concluded that one drum, Drum 68660, was the source of radioactive contamination released during the February 14, 2014, radiological event at WIPP.

Or, as you'll find out if you read the whole report, some idiot ordered organic kitty litter.

The technical background to this is that much of the experimentation that we do and have done with radioactives involves, at some point in the process, nitrate solutions. As everyone with any knowledge of practical chemistry knows, nitrate salts solutions can ignite when they dry out, a fact the IRA made use of when making ammonium nitrate bombs out of fertiliser for some years. We thus try to make sure that we stabilise such solutions before they do dry out.

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