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Kitty Litter Shuts Down Sole US Nuclear Weapons Waste Facility via William Boardman

ow it’s official: using the wrong kitty litter can cause a severe and expensive nuclear accident at the nation’s unique underground radioactive waste containment facility, shutting it down indefinitely.

What’s NOT official yet is why the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) used organic kitty litter that caused the nuclear waste accident in the first place, or why LANL used that kitty litter in some 678 other drums of radioactive nuclear weapons waste now located at LANL and other locations. It’s also NOT official that the wrong kitty litter was deliberately and deceitfully used for more than a year. Nor is it yet clear why the federal government, having violated New Mexico environmental laws, refuses to pay the state $54 million in fines for federal law-breaking.

Last winter, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) appointed a Technical Assessment Team of independent experts from other government labs, and the team spent most of a year investigating the 2014 Valentine’s Day radiation-release accident at New Mexico’s federal Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP). On March 26, 2015, the team produced a 277-page report that concluded that radiation was released from the facility when a single container (Drum 68660) over-heated and failed because the nuclear weapons waste it contained was packed with the wrong kind of kitty litter. That kitty litter was “chemically incompatible” with the other contents of the drum, causing it to overheat, creating gases that forced open the lid in a “thermal runaway” that led to the spill that released radiation to the environment and that still renders a large section of the underground storage area lethal to humans.
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Was LANL cutting safety corners to cut costs?

In November 2014, after a six-month investigation, the Santa Fe New Mexican portrayed LANL as behaving either incompetently, or with reckless disregard for safety, or with something like criminal negligence – perhaps a mixture of all three. Motivating LANL malfeasance, the paper suggests, was the desire of the private contractors running the lab to meet the June 30, 2014, deadline for clearing waste from the site, thereby protecting and extending its $2.2 billion annual operating contract with the U.S. Energy Department as well as another $80 million a year for managing LANL.

Like so much of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, LANL is a cozy, profitable, corporate-welfare monopoly for a private consortium calling itself Los Alamos National Security. The Delaware Limited Liability Company was formed eight years ago by four entities: Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services, URS Energy and Construction, Bechtel, and the University of California. As stated in its by-laws, the company purpose is “to manage and operate the Los Alamos National Laboratory in a manner that furthers the interests of the national security and advances the DOE/NNSA missions, programs and objectives in accordance with the terms of the Prime Contract.” In other words, it is a privately held national security profit center that, according to Bloomberg, “engages in the businesses of nuclear defense programs, facilities management, science and technology to homeland security challenges, and safety and security.”

Los Alamos National Security LLC is, by its very nature, a limited liability conflict of interest in which at least one conflict is between profit and security.

Santa Fe New Mexican lays out tough case against LANL

As viewed by the New Mexican, the parent company, Los Alamos National Security, allowed its employees at LANL to take numerous actions that could protect the company’s profits by risking the security of others. The gambit appears to have failed by just one drum. Its elements, perpetrated or allowed by LANL employees or contractors, included, according to the New Mexican:

… workers packaging the waste came across a batch that was extraordinarily acidic, making it unsafe for shipping. The lab’s guidelines called for work to shut down while the batch underwent a rigid set of reviews to determine how to treat it, a time-consuming process that jeopardized the lab’s goal of meeting the deadline. Instead, the lab and its various contractors took shortcuts in treating the acidic nuclear waste, adding neutralizer and a wheat-based organic kitty litter to absorb excess liquid.
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Documents and internal emails show that even after the radiation leak, lab officials downplayed the dangers of the waste – even to the Carlsbad managers whose staff members were endangered by its presence – and withheld critical information from regulators and WIPP officials investigating the leak.

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Nuclear safety is an expensive mirage, all for the sake of nuclear war

The cost of failure of the single drum contaminated with organic kitty litter will almost surely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. WIPP alone estimates its recovery plan will cost at least $500 million, and an additional $200 million or so for an improved, new ventilation system. These estimates do not include the additional costs of holding the nuclear waste stream while WIPP is closed, or the cost of improvement and compliance at LANL or any other facility.
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And now the federal government has reversed its past practice of paying fines for violating state laws and regulations. In December 2014, New Mexico’s Environment Department levied a total of $54 million in fines on the federal (outsourced) operations at WIPP ($17.7 million) and LANL ($36.6 million). Now the Energy Department is taking the position that it would be illegal to pay New Mexico’s fines, even though it has done so in the past. New Mexico is reportedly preparing a new order against WIPP, LANL, and others with fines totaling $100 million.

Underlying this struggle over the safety of nuclear weapons waste is the Obama administration’s perpetuation of longstanding reliance on a massive nuclear weapons force comprising more than 7,500 warheads, more than 2,000 of which are presently deployed around the world. The Obama administration has embarked on a program of improving and expanding the American nuclear force. A key element of that program is the fabrication of Plutonium pits (nuclear bomb triggers).

Making these essential elements of American weapons of mass destruction has been assigned to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, even though LANL has demonstrated its ability and willingness to gamble on lying about using the wrong kitty litter.

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