Carlsbad, New Mexico — A vast salt mine under the New Mexico desert was the Department of Energy’s last nuclear waste storage solution. On Valentines night, one of the now suspect 500 waste drums from DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) blast open inside DOE’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). Casks filled with 3.2 million cubic feet of deadly radioactive wastes remain buried at the crippled plant. That huge facility was rendered useless. Investigators believe the waste drums from Los Alamos were incorrectly packed under DOE supervision and one of them exploded.
“As part of the ongoing efforts to identify the cause of the event at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, we are evaluating all possible causes including the waste packages themselves,” a statement issued by DOE says. “All possible scenarios will be thoroughly investigated until the cause of the event has been determined.” Investigators are examining “the possibility that a chemical reaction may have occurred with a drum, causing a potential release.”
The New Mexico Environnmental Department obtained emails that show Energy Solutions, the waste contractor that packed the containers, got permission from Los Alamos to change procedures even though the product they proposed to use to secure the radioactive material inside the drums was widely known to cause a chemical reaciton with the radioactive waste. Emails in May 2013 between the LANL and its contractor, EnergySolutions, reveal that America’s premier national radiological laboratory approved the use of a product as absorbent packaging material for damp and wet plutonium-laced waste in containers destined for WIPP even thoough instructions on the product warned against use with metallic nitrates, the very material in the nuclear waste.
EnergySolutions asked LANL managers for approval even though instructions on the product said the material was not safe to use with metallic nitrates, salt nitrates, and organic matter that an act as an oxidizer, a chemical reaction that generates heat. The material, which is used as kitty litter, can chemically react with the nitrate salts in the waste drums. Cole Smith, a chemist with the New Mexico Environmental Department’s Hazardous Waste Bureau said it was “a bad combination.”
Nine months later, one of the packed 55-gallon drums sent to the site exploded.
Greg Mello says he does not believe the inspection process would have prevented the explosion at WIPP. But he said, “The decision was reflective of a general weakening of oversight of what got placed in WIPP.” Mello said that “dangers come because some waste mixtures are potentially explosive if not appropriately packed… Containers with organic matter and transuranic isotopes produce hydrogen. Other explosive gases can be created.” Nuclear waste in liquid or solid form can chemically react. The witches brew in waste containers is similar to what is being stored in huge corroding waste tanks at DOE’s Hanford and Savannah River where the great danger is a hydrogen explosion from a gas buildup caused by the chemical reaction with the nuclear materials. It is the same threat that first responders and the public faced with the partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in March 979, the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and more recently in March 2011, at the MOX fuel Reactor Number Three at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant when a hydrogen explosion blew apart the containment building.
Read more at Breaking Bad: A Nuclear Waste Disaster