Nature, May 28, 2014: Nuclear-waste facility on high alert over risk of new explosions — US repository scrambles to seal off barrels [...] Time bombs may be ticking at the United States’ only deep geological repository for nuclear waste. US authorities concluded last week that at least 368 drums of waste at the site could be susceptible to the chemical reaction suspected to have caused a drum to rupture there in February. That accident caused radioactive material to spill into the repository and leak into the environment above ground. [...] To mitigate the threat of further exploding drums, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) in Santa Fe issued an order on 20 May giving the US Department of Energy [...] until 30 May to come up with a plan to “expedite” the sealing of panel 6 and part of panel 7. [A reaction] blew the lid off of the container [an official cautioned,] “It is not yet known how, or if, the reaction created the rupture in the drum(s)” [...] The DOE added that current assumptions and precautions about the hazards of operating the WIPP are being “evaluated and revised”.
AP, May 31, 2014: Feds say it could take years [...] to seal off hundreds of potentially dangerous containers at its troubled underground nuclear waste dump in southeastern New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy said in a filing Friday. [...] the department gave broad ranges that indicate it could take a minimum of about 100 work weeks — and possibly twice that long — to secure the rooms at the now-shuttered plant where more than 350 containers of toxic waste from decades of building nuclear bombs at Los Alamos National Laboratory is stored. [...] A Department of Energy spokeswoman declined to comment on the estimated time frame [...] A canister shipped from Los Alamos to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project has been linked to the [Feb 14, 2014] release, and officials are investigating whether hundreds of other barrels from Los Alamos that are currently stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Los Alamos and in West Texas are at risk of releasing radiation. [...] There are still 57 barrels on the campus, which officials have repacked into special containers and are now storing under a dome with 24-hour monitoring and fire-protection systems.
DOE WIPP UPDATE (pdf), May 29, 2014: Geotechnical experts also conducted underground inspections at several locations to make sure the ground was still stable.
New emails reveal concern over plutonium chain reaction in WIPP containers — “There shouldn’t be a ‘significant’ reaction… criticality safety issues are not my area of expertise” — “Significant amount of plutonium” — No mention of kitty litter
Albuquerque Journal News, May 29, 2014: WIPP probe: Emails raise new questions [...] internal Los Alamos National Laboratory emails showing Los Alamos approved products to be used in the drums that some experts say contain ingredients widely known to cause a heat reaction when combined with the drums’ other contents. The emails are not about the switch from inorganic to organic cat litter [...] The emails trace LANL’s approval of two products [...] to neutralize the pH balance of drum contents sent to WIPP. [...] despite product warnings clearly stating that the product is incompatible with metallic nitrates and “strong oxidizers,” such as nitrate salts, both of which are found in the LANL drums. Nitrates and organic matter are known to oxidize, a reaction that generates heat. [...] When Zeke Wilmot, [LANL contractor] EnergySolutions industrial hygienist, asked in an August 2013 email for approval to use the product, he notes that “criticality safety issues are not my area of expertise” and “it may be advisable to have LANL personnel weigh in on these issues as well.” [...] WIPP and LANL did not grant requests for interviews regarding the emails [...]
Email to LANL from Zeke Wilmot, EnergySolutions Industrial Hygienist (pdf): [...] we would like approval for use of liquid — acid and base neutralizers [...] I believe immediate solidification would resolve any criticality safety related concerns [...] As we have received a significant amount of Pu-cemented waste, I have looked into the reactivity issues potentially associated with incidental contact with plutonium. From the limited research I have done, elemental plutonium and plutonium hydride (hydride is not likely to be encountered) are water reactive, but there should not be a significant reaction if an aqueous fluid makes contact with plutonium dioxide. I expect most of the cemented Pu waste we’ve handled is the oxide. As the water reactivity of plutonium and criticality safety issues are not my area of expertise it may be advisable to have LANL personnel weigh in on these issues as well.
Cole Smith, chemist in NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau: “A bad combination [...] It wasn’t the most fantastic choice because nitrate salts in combination with organics is a bad mixture.”
William Quintana, head of New Mexico State University chemistry department: “That might be the problem right there [...] Nitrates are oxidizers. Every chemist knows that.”
Experts: Gov’t may never stabilize hundreds of explosive drums of radioactive waste stored at WIPP — Nuclear dump now at risk of closing permanently — Ruined for good by kitty litter? (AUDIO)
The Verge, May 23, 2014: Radioactive kitty litter may have ruined our best hope to store nuclear waste; Billions invested in an underground New Mexico repository could be wasted [...] The most dangerous nuclear waste in the US is currently scattered between 77 locations all over the country, awaiting permanent storage. Until February, many experts suggested that the best place to put it was [WIPP...] two emergencies brought that suggestion – and WIPP’s future – into question. [...] The damage and the resulting radiation leak could close the facility, experts say. [...] the real lesson here may lie in the fragility of even the best nuclear storage facility. Corrective action at WIPP could be a massive undertaking. How many other barrels contain the dangerous organic cat litter? Are all of those barrels underground at WIPP? [...] if the DOE decides stabilizing or repackaging the material is unjustified, that would close WIPP for good.
Per Peterson, UC Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering: “Expert assessment will be needed [to] determine whether the safety benefits of stabilizing or repackaging the material in these drums are justified by the risk to personnel who would attempt to do this work.”
Norbert T. Rempe, PhD, former WIPP principal engineer for decades: “If [WIPP permanently closed], it would be a shame and a disaster [...] we have no idea how long this will take until WIPP is back to normal operations, or what the new normal operations will be [...] No one knows right now. And it could be a long time before anyone knows.”
Jim Conca, writer at Forbes, geologist who worked for years at WIPP: “It could shut down the most successful nuclear repository in history.”
NPR, May 23, 2014: Organic litter is [...] is full of chemical compounds that can react with the nuclear waste. “They actually are just fuel, and so they’re the wrong thing to add,” [Conca] says.
Ryan Flynn, New Mexico’s secretary of the environment: It is clear that the wrong material went into some of the drums. [...] “Ultimately [the waste is] the responsibility of the Department of Energy. It’s also now their responsibility to clean it up and fix it.”
Carlsbad Current Argus, May 23, 2014: More than 350 barrels of waste containing the suspect chemical mixture are currently stored at WIPP