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America’s Nuclear-Waste Plan Is a Giant Mess via The Atlantic

An explosion caused by cat litter at a storage site was just the beginning.

The fateful explosion that shut down America’s only permanent nuclear-waste storage site happened on Valentine’s Day 2014. The facility, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or WIPP, is a series of salt caverns 2,000 feet below the New Mexican desert. Radioactive waste from U.S.’s nuclear weapons comes to WIPP, drum by drum, to be entombed underground.

One such drum ruptured on that February evening. Radioactive material spewed through the caverns, some of it leaking aboveground as well. The original cause turned out to be downright comical: Contractors packing the drum at Los Alamos National Laboratory used the wrong type of cat litter—wheat-based rather than clay—to soak up the liquid radioactive waste, which then reacted with other chemicals inside the drum to explode. Yes, cat litter.

WIPP has been closed for cleanup since the accident, and it’s since blown past one deadline to reopen. The Department of Energy, which operates the plant, is now working to ready WIPP by December 2016.


So instead, high-level radioactive waste sat at the old factories where it was produced during the Cold War—especially at Hanford in Washington and Savannah River in South Carolina. Those tanks and storage facilities were never designed to hold high-level waste for so long. The sites suffered from leaks and environmental contamination. And the cleanup efforts at Hanford and Savannah River are dogged by their own delays and cost overruns. (The report was not kidding around when it called criticized the DOE for a “history of exceeding its cost and schedule estimates.”) Since a repository at Yucca Mountain doesn’t exist, there is sometimes talk of sending this high-level waste to WIPP, which was designed to only handle low-level waste.


This aboveground storage plan is just the latest in the push-and-pull between a national agency and the local community. Whatever one’s personal opinion of nuclear weapons, Americans have all benefited from living in a country whose military might is backed by those weapons. But the costs of producing them has fallen disproportionately on specific locations—at Hanford and Savannah River and now at the sites where the waste is stored. The waste has to be go somewhere, but where?  And who will want it if the government can’t promise to get it right?

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