Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
There is a place in the United States, almost half-a-mile underground, in a salt mine, where radioactive waste leftover from the production of tens of thousands of nuclear bombs was to be held separate from all contact with humanity for 10,000 years, equivalent to the entire history of civilization. This separation of civilization from the byproduct of its folly had lasted one-tenth of one percent of that immense time when on Valentine’s Day, three years ago, an explosion sent the deadly contamination back to the world of humans.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise because there were already two other failed geological repositories for nuclear waste, both in Germany and designed for civilian not military waste, that have also leaked within a short time of operation. But despite the signs of potential failure the United States in an leap of technological faith spent billions to hollow out a salt cavern in south eastern New Mexico, near the small town of Carlsbad, not far from the Texas border called the Waste Isolation pilot Plant or WIPP.
That faith wasn’t justified as events unfolded.
What happened on August 14, 2014 was that at least one of 683 barrels, about three feet tall and a little under two feet in diameter each and filled with plutonium contaminated waste burst into flames contaminating 8000 feet of tunnels and 22 workers who were either on the surface or arrived at the scene soon afterward.
The still unfinished clean up has cost taxpayers $2 billion since then.
Called transuranic or TRU by the industry the waste is the byproduct of 75 years of nuclear weapons production. In the case of the WIPP that waste had originated in New Mexico at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the three places in the United States where nuclear weapons are designed and developed. TRU waste tends to be plutonium contaminated clothing, tools and test materials, the US has at least an Empire State Building full of the stuff, maybe twice that amount and it’s deadly to humans, a powerful carcinogen and a potential explosive, especially the chemicals that the usually soak the plutonium-contaminated waste.
The Los Alamos waste had been stored in barrels on the mesa near Santa Fe for about 15 years without problems until it was shipped to WIPP to be buried forever. As the barrels arrived at the remote desert location they were stored above ground and workers began the process of preparing the barrels for burial. Contained among the solid waste in the barrels was a liquid, mostly nitric acid, an extremely caustic chemical that’s used to tease plutonium out of uranium to make nuclear bombs.
Regulations forbid liquid waste from burial at WIPP so the idea was to pack the barrels with an absorbing material. One of the most absorbent is kitty litter.