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WIPP Nuclear Leak Definitely Caused by Wrong Kind of Kitty Litter: Experts

A team of experts investigating the radiation leak at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) fingered organic kitty litter as part of the cause.
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The kitty-litter rumors are now official fact: a report by a group of independent experts from around the country confirms that “an incompatible combination of nitrate salts and organic cat litter is to blame for the radioactive leak that closed the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository,” the Associated Press reported on March 26.

RELATED: First Kitty Litter, Now a Typo? Santa Fe New Mexican Investigates LANL Radiation Leak

Just over a year ago, a container of nuclear waste ruptured while in storage at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. It had been packed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Radiation leaked out, exposing 21 workers to low levels. They were evacuated, and the facility closed. As the only underground nuclear-waste storage facility in the U.S., it has held up disposal efforts nationwide.

The barrel contained nitrate salt residues, organic cat litter and a neutralizing agent that created a “potentially reactive chemical mixture of fuels and oxidizers,” the AP said.

“A series of ever-increasing heat releasing reactions occurred, which led to the creation of gases within the drum,” the 277-page report stated, according to AP. “The resulting buildup of gases within the drum displaced the drum lid, venting radioactive material and hot matter that further reacted with the air or other materials outside the drum.”

The WIPP remains closed indefinitely and will cost more than $500 million to clean up. The kitty-litter error—it should have been inorganic rather than organic—was just one of several safety violations and attempts to hide them that emerged over the course of last year’s investigation. In December the New Mexico Environment Department fined the LANL and WIPP a total of $54 million for the breaches, the largest civil penalty ever levied by state authorities against the federal government. Both facilities are administered by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

RELATED: Cold War Waste Disposal Stalled Around U.S. as WIPP Reopening Delayed by Months