Typo may have led to radioactive material leak
Dec09

Typo may have led to radioactive material leak

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...

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Reactive material release in nuclear waste facility possibly caused by reactions in drums
Jun06

Reactive material release in nuclear waste facility possibly caused by reactions in drums

Is this the radioactive version of mixing nitric acid and organic waste? On Feb. 14, radioactive material leaked from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant nuclear waste repository in New Mexico. Reports about the incident appear to be pointing a finger at a reactive mixture of nitrate salts and organic material in the waste drum involved–and more may have the same problem. There are some details of the incident in a Department of Energy “Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Nitrate Salt Bearing Waste Container Isolation Plan” dated May 30: • The event did not appear to involve an explosion. • A chemical reaction in the involved container created sufficient heat to breach the lid to the container and caused a release. • Damage to surrounding containers, backfill bags, shrink-wrap, and slip-sheets was due to the heat. • The bulkhead adjacent to the waste stack in Panel 7, Room 7 does not appear to display signs of pressure. • The risk to workers is from heat, smoke, airborne radionuclides, and pressure related to container(s) breaching. The nuclear waste material itself was nitrate salts. The organic material was added in processing and packaging the waste and comes from two sources. One was the use of cat litter added as a sorbent. Formerly a clay material, at some point Los Alamos National Laboratory changed to a cellulose material. The other was neutralizers added to adjust the pH of the material. According to a document by contractor EnergySolutions, this is what went into the drums: Acid neutralizer Prior to September, 2013: Chemtex Acid Neutralizer, dry formula; contains “polymer,” sodium carbonate, alizarin (pH indicator) After September, 2013: Spilfyter Kolorsafe Acid Neutralizer, liquid formula; contains triethanolamine, alizarin, water Base neutralizer Before April, 2013: Spilfyter Kolorsafe Benchtop Kits; contains citric acid, thymol blue (pH indicator); MSDS notes that the material is incompatible with metallic nitrates and strong oxidizers After April, 2013: Pig Base Encapsulating Neutralizer, dry formula; contains citric acid, “super absorbent,” thymol; MSDS notes that the material is incompatible with metallic nitrates and strong oxidizers The New Mexico Environment Department so far seems concerned about the cat litter, but the base neutralizer clearly presented a problem as well. The plan right now seems to be to seal the rooms containing concerning drums as quickly as possible. There are more sitting at LANL waiting to be moved to the pilot plant as well as a site in West Texas. More documents are available at the New Mexico Environment Department website. Other coverage: Albuquerque Journal: WIPP probe: Emails raise new questions, Photos show cracked LANL container at WIPP Forbes: Response to nuclear kitty litter is moving fast NPR: Organic...

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