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Nuclear waste causing concerns in New Mexico and Texas

The New Mexico Environment Department has ordered the Department of Energy to seal two rooms in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant after a recent radiation leak which remains unexplained, the Albuquerque Journal reported in a May 20 story. The facility experienced a radiation leak on Feb. 14 which appears to be continuing. It is believed that a reaction between organic kitty litter and some of the waste which is stored in barrels may have caused a fire or release of nuclear waste in the facility.

This image was captured during the May 19 entry to Panel 7, Room 7. Damage can be seen to the slip sheet on top of the waste container and there are remnants of a magnesium oxide bag also visible.
This image was captured during the May 19 entry to Panel 7, Room 7. Damage can be seen to the slip sheet on top of the waste container and there are remnants of a magnesium oxide bag also visible.
Dept. of Energy / public domain
The May 15 entry into Panel 7, Room 7 produced this photo of a waste container (left) with its lid unsealed and apparent heat discoloration.
The May 15 entry into Panel 7, Room 7 produced this photo of a waste container (left) with its lid unsealed and apparent heat discoloration.
Dept of Energy / public domain

The U.S. Department of Energy operates the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeaster New Mexico. It is located in a former salt mine, about a half mile below the surface. The plant is the only storage facility in the nation for waste that has been contaminated by plutonium and other man-made radioactive elements.

The waste consists of two types, based on the radioactivity they emit. About 96 percent of the waste can be handled by personnel working directly with the storage container that it is in. The remainder is too radioactive to be in contact with and is handled remotely. Clumping kitty litter is added to containers that have liquids in them to solidify the material.

The Washington Post reported May 20 that the leak on Feb. 14 contaminated 22 plant personnel. The leak may be tied to a change in the kitty litter being used, from inorganic to organic, which was done in Jan. 2013. The paper notes that New Mexico's Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn called the 300 plus barrels of waste in the plant "an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment."

The Post states that 368 barrels of the nuclear waste are underground, 57 remain at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and more than 100 are being stored at a West Texas facility. Some of the barrels were treated with the organic kitty litter.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the nuclear waste sent to Texas is being stored above ground at a facility operated by Waste Control Specialists in Andrews County, TX. The Chronicle says that 57 barrels containing nitrate salts and the organic litter are the concern for New Mexico. The barrels are said to be distributed between the Lab, the Texas facility and the salt mine.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is shutdown. The situation in the two affected rooms remains unclear since conditions do not allow personnel to enter some of the storage area. A camera was used on May 20 to inspect room seven, where heat damage to containers and wrappings and damage to bags of magnesium oxide was visible.