Kitty Litter May Have Caused Radiation Leak

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A nuclear waster storage facility in New Mexico was shut down weeks ago after researchers discovered unsafe levels of radiation, which affected 21 workers. Now scientists have attributed kitty litter to a possible cause of the nuclear decontainment.

The underground Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), located east of Carlsbad, houses drums of plutonium-tinged refuse that are buried 2,100 feet below ground. On February 14, scientists found that radiation levels had spiked in a containment chamber holding waste from Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory. It has been theorized that a chemical reaction had weakened the seals on the drums, releasing plutonium particles.

Jill Turner, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department, commented that "kitty litter is in the field of theories." The litter is used to absorb liquid in the debris, Turner explained, and may have ignited the chemical reaction which weakened the seals.

Here is a segment on the WIPP facility, reminiscent of a Dharma Initiative instructional video from ABC's Lost:

Due to the leak, the WIPP containment facility will remain out of commission for 18 months, and won't be fully functional again for up to 3 years. Apparently due to a lax security protocol that had developed over time at the facility, organic kitty litter was somehow incorporated in nuclear containment. Jim Conca, a scientist who worked at WIPP from 2000 to 2010, commented, "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."

Conca added, "Cat litter has been used for decades in radiochemistry labs and nuclear facilities to stabilize certain radwastes (radioactive wastes), like liquid scintillation solutions, evaporator bottoms and other materials." Still, a switch from traditional bentonite clay-based kitty litter to an organic, "green" kitty litter, which is typically composed of wheat, corn and recycled paper or pine sawdust, may have contributed to the chemical reaction that caused the WIPP decontainment.

Studies have shown that kitty litter also houses Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that exists in cat feces. Human exposure to the parasite has been linked to instances of schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, rheumatoid arthritis and brain cancer.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

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