New Mexico orders United States to protect people and environment
Plutonium and other radioactive elements were accidentally released from the only U.S. underground nuclear weapons waste storage site in New Mexico on Valentine’s Day 2014. More than three months later, investigators think they’ve found an underground container that failed – and that there are hundreds more like them, both underground and above ground, at different sites in New Mexico and Texas. Investigators haven’t yet said exactly what caused the underground failure in February, or whether more than one underground waste container failed, but there have been no reports of further failures among the hundreds of now suspect containers, all of which are thought to contain a dangerous combination of nitrate salt and other chemicals.
This set of circumstances prompted the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to issue administrative orders to federal and private agencies on May 19 and May 20, compelling them to take protective action:
Based on the evidence provided to NMED, the current handling, storage, treatment and transportation of the hazardous nitrate salt bearing waste containers [at various sites] may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment….
This Order addresses immediate steps to isolate, secure and/or treat all nitrate salt bearing waste containers…. (emphasis added)
The Plutonium release into the environment near Carlsbad, New Mexico, on February 14 came from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the 15-year-old underground storage site for radioactive nuclear weapons waste that was, according to its design, supposed to remain secure for 10,000 years. WIPP did not acknowledge the Plutonium release until February 19, after it was discovered by an independent monitor. The scale of the radioactive release in February is unknown, but it is widely believed to have been relatively small.
How great is the “imminent and substantial endangerment…”?
As Memorial Day approached, no one was saying with any assurance how great the danger was from hundreds of containers holding radioactive waste, since only one (or a few) were known to have failed so far.
Half a mile underground at WIPP there are at least 368 identified “nitrate salt bearing waste containers” in two sections of the facility. The New Mexico Environment Department is calling for WIPP to carry out an “expedited closure” of these storage areas to entomb the waste as permanently as possible. It is unlikely entombment can be achieved for months, at least, since WIPP workers have little safe access to the storage areas yet.
Investigators presently believe that the nitrate salt bearing containers all come from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where the U.S. has been making atomic weapons for more than 70 years. In recent years, after wild fires threatened LANL’s above ground radioactive waste storage, LANL has been shipping its waste to WIPP. After the February Plutonium release, New Mexico ordered WIPP to remain shut down till it passed a state inspection and WIPP is expected to remain shut down for the foreseeable future.
LANL, however, has a lawful deadline of June 30, 2014, to clear its site of above ground radioactive waste. Because of this, shipments continued after the initial closure of WIPP, resulting in some nitrate salt bearing containers currently being stored above ground at WIPP. Later shipments from LANL went to a facility in west Texas, where they, too, are stored above ground. The LANL website has no information about WIPP issues and a LANL representative declined to comment on whether LANL would be able to meet the June 30 deadline.
New Mexico ordered LANL on May 19 to prepare a “waste container isolation plan” for the 57 identified nitrate salt bearing containers still on the 36 square mile LANL site. In a statement issued May 23, LANL said it “has initiated a series of safety precautions and investigative measures”:
The 55-gallon drums of waste remediated with absorbent have been packed into steel standard waste boxes and moved to a structure equipped with ventilation controls, fire suppression systems for extra protection and thermal monitoring.
On Thursday [May 22], the Lab submitted a plan to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) describing site actions to isolate, secure and treat waste thought to be a possible source of the February 14 radiation release.
Is kitty litter somehow to blame for releasing radioactivity?
In its May 19 administrative order to LANL, New Mexico identifies waste streams that “contain varying amounts of nitrate salts,” although nitrate salts alone would not be expected to produce heat or explosion under most circumstances. The order goes on to note that the Energy Dept. has identified that “the primary waste stream, that contains nitrate salts absorbed with cellulose based kitty litter,” also contained the “two suspect LANL nitrate salt containers” that failed. All similar LANL waste containers in that waste stream became suspect in early May when investigators first theorized that the radioactive leak came at the end of a chain of events that began when the waste packer used the wrong kind of kitty litter. A LANL representative declined to answer questions about nitrate salts or kitty litter.
The wrong kitty litter was probably used to treat some of the nuclear waste recently disposed in the world’s only deep underground nuclear waste repository, near Carlsbad in New Mexico…. Unfortunately, someone working with this waste, before it was to be shipped to WIPP, used a new “green” cat litter, made with materials like wheat or corn. These organic litters do not have the silicate properties needed to chemically stabilize nitrate the correct way…. Recall that WIPP, the only operating geologic nuclear waste repository, had its first minor accident on Valentine’s Day after 15 years of perfect operations.
Conca’s “15 years of perfect operations” omits the February 5 vehicle fire underground that led to the WIPP shutdown that continues into the present. One reason the radiation release of February 14 exposed only 20 or so people was because the underground operation was shut down and no workers were in the cavern. Conca also omits mention of WIPP’s anticipation of perfect operation for 10,000 years.
Conca does note that “Nitrate salt solutions can ignite when they dry out,” but he does not mention the cellulose inherent in the “green” kitty litter. Maybe it’s not relevant, but nitrocellulose, also called cellulose nitrate or flash paper, has long been known as a highly flammable compound. And cellulose is also part of composition of the salt mine in which WIPP is located.
Unanswered questions, uncertain future, unburied radioactive waste
The kitty litter “answer” seems to leave a lot of unanswered questions, such as these, submitted in writing to representatives at LANL and WIPP:
What can you tell me about organic/non-organic kitty litter?
What can you tell me about nitrate salt reaction with cellulose (kitty litter)?
Relevant links would be helpful, if you can’t comment directly.
Is there any official opinion about why one container (or a few) would
fail, but the others wouldn’t?
Are there other known failed containers outside of WIPP?
The LANL representative declined to answer any of the questions, suggesting the place to go was WIPP. The WIPP representative declined to answer any of the questions, suggesting LANL was the place to go, and even forwarded the queries to LANL. Submitting the questions to the New Mexico Environment Department produced this answer (in part):
These are the same questions we are also asking WIPP and LANL at this time.
You also have to understand that some of these questions cannot be answered, as the investigation has yet to prove that kitty litter triggered the release.
This is currently a working theory, but still too much is unknown.
The NEMD representative referred to the agency’s administrative orders as “precautionary measures” in case the theory was true, and said WIPP and LANL were cooperating and providing information as it became available. He said no other failed containers outside of WIPP had been reported.
What with one or more underground nuclear waste containers already leaking and hundreds of containers above and below ground posing a threat of leakage, it’s been a bad week for WIPP, LANL, and American nuclear safety. WIPP has had one bad week after another since the February 5 underground fire. Then the February 14 radiation release made the underground inaccessible to humans.
After weeks of careful, painstaking progress, a WIPP re-entry team finally reached underground Room 7 of Panel 7, the presumed site of the accident that caused the Plutonium leak. There the team “determined that the radiological release was not the result of a partial roof collapse in the mine or a bolt falling from the roof and puncturing a container.”
The Energy Dept.’s WIPP UPDATE of May 9 also said: “Visual examinations in Room 7 of Panel 7 have shown that several magnesium oxide bags, placed on top of waste containers to prevent radioactive material from being released into the
environment over a 10,000-year period, were damaged. WIPP is still working to determine what caused the damage to the magnesium oxide bags…. The team is looking at the possibility that a chemical reaction may have occurred within a drum, causing a potential release.” [That turned out to be the nitrate salt/cellulose hypothesis.]
The Energy Dept. has released a one-minute video with natural sound but no narration, titled “Phase 3 Activity 8, May 15, 2014.” The video apparently shows a dozen or more underground containers that have eroded and allowed their contents to ooze out the top in the form of what looks like a gooey, granular, doughy substance. Apparently referring to these or similar pictures, the WIPP UPDATE of May 16 said, “In the new pictures, the LANL container has a cracked lid and shows evidence of heat damage. Workers will continue investigating to determine what caused the container breach and if any other containers were involved or damaged.” (Another video from April 30 shows one of the rooms nearly filled with waste containers looking pretty much intact. Other videos are linked from the WIPP website.)
The WIPP re-entry team took more video and photographs in Panel 7 Room 7 on May 22, confirming the identification number of the failed drum. Stay tuned.