Kitty Litter? Radiation Leak in NM May Have Been Caused by It

Image: Kitty Litter? Radiation Leak in NM May Have Been Caused by It This May 10, 2014 photo provided by the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant shows evidence of a heat-producing event, seen from the black marks on the sides of a standard waste box, at the WIPP site in Carlsbad.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014 06:15 PM

By Angela Deines

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Kitty litter may have caused a radiation leak at a federal nuclear waste storage site in New Mexico after it was used to absorb liquid in radioactive debris.

Twenty-one workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in Carlsbad, New Mexico, were exposed to a small amount of the radiation that was in the leak in February, Reuters reported.

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U.S. Energy Department officials said a chemical reaction possibly triggered by the kitty litter may have caused enough heat to melt the seals on some drums of contaminated sludge from the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory.

Jill Turner, spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department, said kitty litter is in the “field of theories” about a possible cause for the accident. She said kitty litter is used as an absorbent for liquid contained in radiological debris that is transferred to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which doesn’t accept liquid waste.

Drums of refuse containing plutonium are buried in salt caverns more than 2,000 feet underground at the waste disposal site. The plant has been shut down since unsafe radiation levels were first detected there in February.

In April, 21 workers tested positive for radiation but it was unclear as to what extent they were actually contaminated.

Some watchdog groups, such as the Southwest Research and Information Center, have deemed the plant to be a failure because of the leak, says Plant operators, however, have said WIPP’s safety measures have worked as planned.

Officials at the Los Alamos plant and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant didn’t comment Tuesday. However, managers at the plant have said operations aren’t expected to resume for at least 18 months and may take as long as three years to open again. This is the worst accident at the site that has a good safety record since it opened in 1999.

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