Kitty litter may have caused radiation contamination of 21 workers in New Mexico and the closing of the federal government’s only permanent nuclear waste dump, Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP). The Department of Energy is investigating, but a scientist who worked at the facility believes a change from non-organic to organic kitty litter initiated a reaction which released radioactive isotopes.
Nine days prior, a truck in the mine caught fire. The accidents appear unrelated but both are blamed on a slow erosion of the safety culture at WIPP. (Associated Press, 5/14/14)
A scientist referred to the kitty litter change as staggering incompetence, “…mixing nitrates with organic material usually results in a fire or explosion.” Sounds pretty basic and most likely covered in the procedural manuals at a nuclear waste dump site.
I discussed earlier (link here) how our schools are preparing students for a Medieval world wherein levels of literacy and numeracy are low. Great discoveries and accomplishments were achieved in Medieval times, but higher level education was restricted to the elite few, as today.
A result of ineffective and confusing curriculum and instruction (discussed, including references, in my first 90 columns archived here) and continued under Common Core, our schools are graduating students ill-prepared for the nuclear age. The majority of graduates in Nebraska and the nation are less than proficient (at grade level) in reading, math and science (NAEP 2013).
Learning failure has caused a subtle, slow erosion of our safety culture in addition to the social culture.
The Greatest Generation (grew up during the Depression, fought in World War II) were taught a sound foundation in the basic skills of reading, math and science. The Greatest Generation is largely responsible for developing our infrastructure and companies which have stood the test of time. Strong basic skills promote accuracy, attention to details, and desire for correctness in all endeavors. Simply by the way basic skills were taught in the past, errors were not allowed. Brains were trained for accuracy and to ferret out errors at a glance.
Current school practices such as word flash cards, word guessing, magic spelling and countless confusing ways to add and subtract in the early grades does not promote accuracy. It may be enough detail for ancient times, but leaves today’s youth lost. “Once literacy skills are acquired, the reader can approach printed material with critical analysis, use information and insights from texts as the basis for informed decisions…” (Wikipedia) Numeracy promotes the ability to reason.
Boots on the ground at WIPP apparently lacked the ability to review procedures and evaluate effects prior to making the kitty litter change.
This is affecting all industries in large and small ways, but is more noticeable when a chemical reaction involving a change in kitty litter causes radiation contamination of employees. The devil is in the details, and you don’t have all the details if your reading, math and science skill level is less than proficient.