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

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

By Tim Worstall, 1 Apr 2015

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.

Why Devon doesn't explode

That involves sticking in various extremely stable minerals – bentonites, diatomaceous earths, perhaps – and all is then tickety without the boom. Which is where kitty litter comes in. If you're in the average town anywhere in the civilised world, the easiest source of such extremely stable minerals is the kitty litter shelf at the local supermarket. Don't worry too much about those technical names either. What we really mean is just a purer form of those heavy, clayey, soils that cover Devon. Which is one of the reasons why Devon doesn't go boom after they put the ammonium nitrate on the pastures*.

So, what was the mistake that was made? Our intrepid chemist decided to order organic kitty litter instead of inorganic. And organic stuff is made from grains: possibly the chaff from wheat or corn. Which doesn't really have quite the same properties as our silicates above.

So, Drum 68660 did not have its nitrates stabilised and went pop. The results of this buffoonery are costing some $240 million (£161m) to clean up.

All of which is very expensive and highly amusing. But what on earth is anyone doing trying to make organic kitty litter in the first place? It's not as if we've got a looming shortage of silicates: we'd all be in very serious trouble if we did. Looking up the USGS numbers just for diatomaceous earths gives us a number for reserves (remember, reserves are the stuff we know can be mined at current prices and current technology, resources are the stuff that we might be able to extract profitably) listed as “large”.

In the technical jargon, this translates to: “Dear God, don't be ridiculous. We're never gonna run out of that.” Or long enough for the Felidae to evolve thumbs and thus do away with our can-opening services in any case. So why are the hippies even worrying about it and creating the organic version? The standard version digs up some earth, sticks it in a sack, kitty squits on it and back into the earth it goes as landfill. We've moved stuff around a bit, but really, is this a problem that needs a solution?

But enough of such simplicities, let us now turn our attention to the real headscratcher. The source of that drum was Los Alamos, which is largely – but by no means exclusively – a nuclear weapons lab. And we have someone there who apparently preferentially purchases organically. Are we entirely certain that this is a round peg, round hole sort of job allocation? ®

* That, plus the impossibility of anything in the West of England ever becoming dry.

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