New Mexico’s environmental official said on Tuesday that kitty litter that was used for absorbing radioactive debris may be the cause of a chemical reaction that resulted in a radiation leak below ground at a nuclear waste storage.
Dangerous radiation levels were first detected on February 14. The waste storage consists of drums of refuse tainted with plutonium that came from laboratories and nuclear weapon factories. They are buried 2,100 feet in salt caverns. The disposal site has since been shut down for safety reasons.
News reports say that a small radiation leak rose up to the surface and affected 21 workers who were present at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). This incident is said to be the worst since the plant first opened its doors in 1999.
Jim Conca, a scientist who worked at the plant from 2000 to 2010, said that the change in using non-organic litter to organic litter may have caused the chemical reaction that released the radioactive isotopes. However, Ryan Flynn, the New Mexico Environment Department Secretary said that the kitty litter is just one of the theories and nothing is confirmed at this point.
The waste plant cannot accept liquid waste, so kitty litter is being used to absorb the liquid before the waste drums are sealed.
“I’m just dying to know why this happened and who approved it, because it was a dumb idea. You just can’t make a change to the procedure without reviewing it,” said Conca.
WIPP is the only permanent repository for waste. It is used by national laboratories and federal facilities. On Monday, investigators went to the mine and saw melted rubber and plastic, which could mean that heat was generated in the waste storage room.
WIPP will not be opening soon, and operations will be stopped for at least a year and a half. Managers said that it may take as long as 3 years for the plant to be ready for full operations.
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