Scientists unable to recreate chemical reaction suspected in New Mexico radiation leak

Fri Jun 27, 2014 11:51pm EDT

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(Reuters) - Government scientists have not been able to replicate a chemical reaction suspected of causing a radiation leak at a U.S. nuclear waste dump in New Mexico, complicating efforts to understand what went wrong, a U.S. Energy Department official said Friday.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where drums of radioactive refuse from nuclear weapons sites and laboratories are buried in salt caverns 2,100 feet (640 meters) underground, has been shut down since Feb. 14 when at least one drum ruptured.

The mishap near the town of Carlsbad exposed 22 workers at the facility with low levels of radiation and ranked as its worst accident and one of the few blemishes on its safety record since it opened in 1999. The facility is the nation’s only underground repository for so-called transuranic waste.

Shipments from U.S. nuclear labs of tools, rags and other debris contaminated with radioisotopes such as plutonium are on hold indefinitely as scientists probe the accident.

Investigators have said a chemical reaction between nitrate salts and organic kitty litter used as an absorbent generated sufficient heat to melt seals on at least one drum of contaminated sludge, which had originally come from the Los Alamos National Laboratory near Santa Fe.

But experiments conducted by scientists from Los Alamos and other U.S. nuclear labs have failed to reproduce the chemical reaction, and hundreds of drums of similarly packaged nuclear waste are still intact, said Energy Department spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” she said.

Managers of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant have said it may take as long as three years for the facility to be fully operational, complicating disposal of containers of transuranic waste stored above ground at nuclear research complexes such as Los Alamos and Idaho National Laboratory.

Officials at Los Alamos last month notified New Mexico they would not be able to meet a June 30 deadline to remove drums of waste stored on a mesa where they could be threatened by wildfires.

Idaho National Laboratory faces a 2018 deadline to remove drums and boxes of transuranic waste sent to the eastern Idaho desert for storage from a defunct federal nuclear weapons-making plant outside Denver.

Geisler said the Energy Department was reviewing disposal options but she could not provide details.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho, Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Ken Wills)

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Comments (4)
AnotherNobody wrote:
They are using organic Kitty litter! Maybe they should investigate what else is in the cat litter first. A lot of that stuff comes from China so who really knows what other fillers are in the litter that could be reacting with the other chemicals.

Jun 28, 2014 4:16am EDT  --  Report as abuse
morbas wrote:
transuranic waste : “alpha emitting transuranic radionuclides possessing half-lives greater than 20 years” wikipedia

We need infrastructure funds, anticipating what I will tweet next…?
The only permanent storage is on the Sun, yet we still depend on expensive (relatively unreliable) rocket propulsion for LEO insertion!

Congress must open up infrastructure projects to enable USA economics. Reduce/eliminate naval shipping that uses waste grade oil fuel. Switch to North/Central/South America Rail infrastructure to include a Trans-Bearing Strait route as a matter of efficiency. Re-Engineer rail gauge for reliability and speed. Make Truck/rail/freeway portals at interstate intersections, thus reducing fuel consumption and promoting local electric transport. Build national level canals for water distribution relieving drought by using excessive fresh water run of. We might then improve CO2 sequester by irrigating our mid plane deserts. One of the canal paths through the Rockies could be coupled with a SF to Denver Maglev 2G space ramp using a common power generation infrastructure. Thus promoting Maglev transit as a spinoff of Space Access Maglev launch capacity.
We should build on a strategic infrastructure designed to make USA a Global transportation hub, linking Americas (North Central South) to the old world. Not because this is easy or hard, because this will be our challenge, we must be willing to better mankind.

Jun 28, 2014 7:27am EDT  --  Report as abuse
put this stuff in the trench in pacific where one continental plate rides over another, only the heat and pressure of the earth can recycle this stuff

Jun 28, 2014 9:56am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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