Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Courtesy WIPP
A wheat-based absorbent often used in kitty litter may be the likely cause of the radiation leak that led to the closure of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the U.S. only underground nuclear waste repository, according to Jim Conca, a former geochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
Conca noted that EnergySolutions, a Salt Lake City-based company hired to package radioactive waste at LANL into containers for shipment to the WIPP, switched from using a clay-based absorbent in the storage drums to a wheat-based mixture.
Santa Fe New Mexican reports that wheat-based absorbents have been used to clean up chemical spills, but nuclear scientists rely on clay-based absorbents to soak up liquids used to clean lab tools. The silicate minerals in the clay bond with and stabilize ammonia nitrates and other liquids, unlike organic absorbents such as wheat, Conca said. “It (wheat-based absorbents) absorbs like a sponge. If you let the salts dry out completely, they can ignite” and lead to a “mild” explosion in one or more of the waste containers, said Conca, who was once an environmental monitor for WIPP.
Energy Department (DoE) officials say it may take three years before WIPP is reopened, but Conca believes that decision is ill-advised if the wrong kind of absorbent in the waste containers did cause the radiation leak. If so, then the fault is not with WIPP, which means the plant could reopen as soon as the contaminated containers are discovered.
“It is incredibly important to act quickly. You don’t want to wait months and let the drums keep drying out. They need to be gathered quickly and get them to WIPP. By being stupid, we risk doing this wrong and making it worse,” Conca said.
DoE officials have not commented on Conca’s theory.
For now, LANL has been ordered by the New Mexico government to remove all old lab tools, debris, and waste contaminated during decades of nuclear research, and ship the waste containers to a temporary storage on the grounds of Waste Control Specialists in Texas. These shipments have been stopped, however, until federal investigators can determine whether the absorbent used in the LANL containers were responsible for the leak at WIPP.
Investigators trying to determine the cause of the radiation leak at WIPP, which is located near Carlsbad, New Mexico, are focused on radioactive waste from LANL, Savannah River, and Idaho stored in Panel 7, the deep salt cavern room where the air monitors detected radiation in February. So far, several large bags of magnesium oxide in Panel 7 have been found damaged, and removed. The bags are usually placed on top of waste containers to prevent radiation leaks. “All possible scenarios will be thoroughly investigated until the cause of the event has been determined,” read a recent statement issued by DoE.
LANL director Charlie McMillan said last Thursday that “the delays in being able to get things into WIPP, and now being able to get things to Waste Control Specialists in Texas, are very much a cause for concern, and I’m working very closely with the team. We have a very aggressive schedule, and to get everything off the site is certainly the goal, but it’s too early to tell.”
Source: Homeland Security News Wire (HSNW)