The New Mexico Environment Department ordered the closure and fortification Tuesday of portions of the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, where radiation detected on Feb. 14 is believed to have originated.
The order, issued by Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn, is the second in as many days zeroing in on one particular waste stream to WIPP from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the possibility that a chemical reaction caused by the type of kitty litter mixed into waste containers triggered the leak.
Flynn’s order on Tuesday directs WIPP and the U.S. Department of Energy to submit a plan within 10 days to close Panel 6 and Panel 7 of WIPP, where DOE last week identified a drum containing nuclear waste nitrate salts mixed with kitty litter as the suspected source of the radiation leak.
Possible steps the WIPP plan could include to fortify the underground waste-storage bunkers are sealing them, adding explosion isolation walls and adding steel bulkheads.
Jeffrey Kendall, general counsel for the New Mexico Environment Department, said there’s no denying that kitty litter is a leading theory for the cause of the radiation leak, particularly since last week’s inspection by DOE determined the “breached” drum was from LANL and known to contain organic kitty litter.
Geochemist Jim Conca, a longtime employee of the lab now living in Washington state, first publicly voiced the theory that a switch from clay-based kitty litter to organic litter for absorbency in waste packaged at LANL and shipped to WIPP may have caused a slow, chemical burn that burst a drum, freeing the airborne radiation that has been detected. A second drum, also believed to have been from the same waste stream as the compromised container photographed last week by DOE inspectors, was referenced in the New Mexico Environment Department’s orders.
But WIPP spokesman Brad Bugger said, “I don’t know that there’s anymore credence to [the kitty litter theory]. We’re investigating it and other waste streams, but we have not reached any conclusions.”
Lab spokesman Matthew Nerzig concurred with Bugger that the state directives issued on back-to-back days lend neither more nor less support to the theory.
In addition to the two suspect drums at WIPP, 57 drums from the same waste stream treated with organic kitty litter remain at LANL, where steps already have been taken to secure them, such as isolating them in above-ground domes equipped for fire suppression and overpacking them in standard waste containers.
Still more drums from the same waste stream are housed at Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas, where the New Mexico Environment Department has no authority. But it is in constant contact with officials about precautionary steps, Kendall said.
On May 21, the lab must submit its plan for securing the on-site waste to the Environment Department in response to the order issued Monday.
“Los Alamos took immediate steps to secure nitrate salt waste drums,” LANL’s Nerzig said. “All of the drums that remain at Los Alamos have been overpacked into steel standard waste boxes and moved into a ventilation filter area with fire protection. Most if not all of this work has either been already put into place or is in the process of being put into place.”
Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.