Typo may have led to radioactive material leak

Courtesy of New Mexico Environment Department

Courtesy of New Mexico Environment Department

On Feb. 14, radioactive material leaked from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository in New Mexico. The leak was traced to a drum containing a reactive mixture of nitrate salts, an acid neutralizer, and an organic, cellulose-based cat litter used as a sorbent.

From an investigation by the Santa Fe New Mexican:

In a damning report issued in October, the Department of Energy’s Office of Inspector General chided [Los Alamos National Laboratory] and its waste packaging subcontractor EnergySolutions for the change from clay-based to organic kitty litter and the use of an acid neutralizer.

“This action may have led to an adverse chemical reaction within the drums resulting in serious safety implications,” the report said, referring to the litter change. A lab spokesman said LANL officials recognize deficiencies in the lab’s safety processes were spotlighted by the disaster at WIPP.

But LANL has never publicly acknowledged the reason why it switched from clay-based litter to the organic variety believed to be the fuel that fed the intense heat. In internal emails, nuclear waste specialists pondered several theories about the reason for the change in kitty litters before settling on an almost comically simplistic conclusion that has never been publicly discussed: A typographical error in a revision to a LANL policy manual for repackaging waste led to a wholesale shift from clay litter to the wheat-based variety.

The revision, approved by LANL, took effect Aug. 1, 2012, mere days after the governor’s celebratory visit to Los Alamos, and explicitly directed waste packagers at the lab to “ENSURE an organic absorbent (kitty litter) is added to the waste” when packaging drums of nitrate salt.

“Does it seem strange that the procedure was revised to specifically require organic kitty litter to process nitrate salt drums?” Freeman, Nuclear Waste Partnership’s chief nuclear engineer at WIPP, asked a colleague in a May 28 email.

Freeman went on to echo some of the possible reasons for the change bandied about in earlier emails, such as the off-putting dust or perfumed scents characteristic of clay litter. But his colleague, Mark Pearcy, a member of the team that reviews waste to ensure it is acceptable to be stored at WIPP, offered a surprising explanation.

“General consensus is that the ‘organic’ designation was a typo that wasn’t caught,” he wrote, implying that the directions should have called for inorganic litter.

And now more than 5,500 containers of nuclear waste may contain organic sorbent. Moral of the story: Proofread your procedures carefully.

Overall, the story paints Los Alamos National Laboratory waste-handling procedures and communication as a mess. I’m wondering about a couple of things, though. First is the significance of the assertion that “the drum’s contents match the makeup of patented plastic, water-gel and slurry explosives.” Perhaps I’ve been exposed to a few too many horrified “ingredient X in your food is an ingredient in Y industrial product!” chemophobia cries, but I’m not convinced that just having the ingredients in the same please place means that you have a drum-sized bomb. I’d want to check that with an explosives expert.

Second is the assertion that the particular batch of waste in the drum had an initial pH of zero. How’d they measure that? Is the measurement accurate? Was the waste mostly concentrated acid?

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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3 Comments

  1. I find it ironic that an article about how a typo can cause such a dangerous situation wasn’t itself better proof-read:
    “…just having the ingredients in the same please means that you have a drum-sized bomb…”

  2. A pH test strip could have been used. Test strips are available with a range of 0 to 14 in increments of 1 and 0 to 6 in increments of 0.5.

    As for typos, in the next to last paragraph, should “… having the ingredients in the same please …” have been “”… having the ingredients in the same place …”?