THE KITTY LITTER THEORY
The popular theory that has been advanced as to the cause of the WIPP plutonium and americium release, which is apparently believed by the Department of Energy (DOE), is that a switch was made from inorganic kitty litter (clay or diatomaceous earth) to organic kitty litter, as an absorbent in containers of nuclear waste from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). Nitrate salts were also added, and the combination of these substances caused a chemical reaction that caused an explosion in one of more containers.
This theory was advanced by James Conca, but has not been confirmed. No chemist, including Conca, would ever have OK’d such a thing. And the change was not approved by the New Mexico Environment Department.
Here Don Hancock, an expert from the watchdog group SRIC weighs in:
The kitty litter theory seems to be ridiculous. Why would they do such a thing? Clay is inert, and binds to plutonium with a strength that science has not fully explained. Organic ingredients emit gases when they decompose, and the addition of nitrate salts cause a chemical reaction. Cost? What could be cheaper than the ingredients of plain kitty litter?
MAYBE IT WAS pH BALANCERS
But it came out that the agent responsible for the chemical reaction might have been an organic-based pH balancer. This is making a little more sense, but not much more.
The emails trace LANL’s approval of two products requested by contractor EnergySolutions, which packages LANL waste, to neutralize the pH balance of drum contents sent to WIPP.
The products contain organic ingredients known to be incompatible with the nitrate salts present in the LANL waste containers – “a bad combination,” according to Cole Smith, a chemist in NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau.
EnergySolutions asked LANL managers for approval in a May 2013 email to switch to one of the products. LANL approved the change a month later – 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.
The other product mentioned in an email was a new liquid to neutralize acids and bases in the drums. When Zeke Wilmot, 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.”
A subcontract technical representative for LANL environmental programs responded to Wilmot and approved the change in a September 2013 email copied to eight other people. The approved product also contains an organic ingredient.
“It wasn’t the most fantastic choice because nitrate salts in combination with organics is a bad mixture,” said Smith, who also serves on the NMED team that writes the permit for WIPP.
“That might be the problem right there,” said William Quintana, head of the New Mexico State University chemistry department. “Nitrates are oxidizers. Every chemist knows that.” (link)
There is some question as to whether a criticality occurred at WIPP, that is, a nuclear chain reaction. This could have contributed to the explosion, and created more radioactive materials to be released, activation products, which are produced by the interaction of neutrons with the containers and other materials underground in the WIPP mine. There were no measurements made of these isotopes, so we don’t know whether this happened or not.
Section 7. Handling and Storage
Avoid high heat and/or freezing conditions. Keep container tightly closed. Suitable for general chemical storage under normal warehouse conditions.
NOTE: If this product is stored at temperatures >150 °F or at elevations above 5000 feet, gas may form, increasing the pressure within the container, causing the container to bulge. If bulging occurs, remove the container from the work area and slowly open the container to release the gas.
Be sure to wear proper personal protective equipment.
The product is not supposed to be stored at elevations over 5,000 feet, because it may release gas. Los Alamos is at an elevation of 7,300 feet.
So this theory make a little more sense, it is not quite as stupid as the switch to organic kitty litter, but it is still stupid. At least there is a plausible motive for it.
IT’S ALL ABOUT MONEY
Mitigating the internal chemistry of these drums, once filled, would have been (and is now) expensive, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous. For all these reasons it must have been unpopular with LANL management, especially once an agreement (the “Framework Agreement”) was made (and widely publicized in the local press) to get these and other drums totaling 3,706 cubic meters of TRU waste off “The Hill” by June 30, 2014. Governor Martinez was prominently identified with this plan, the details of which (and political context of) this organization is not in a position to fully assess.
Suffice it to say that we doubt the value of the Framework Agreement and the wisdom of process that was followed to get it.
Completion of this Agreement was also specifically written into the (very brief and vague) LANS annual Performance Evaluation Plan (PEP) for fiscal year (FY) 2014 as a contract requirement (“Successfully, and cost effectively, complete Framework Agreement commitments to the New Mexico Environmental Department…”, p. 7 here).
In FY13, LANS was docked one year of contract award term (worth about $2 billion in gross income) for failure to meet contract requirements – primarily for having to shut down most of PF-4’s operations starting in June of last year. (PF-4 operations have not yet fully restarted, the topic of the next Bulletin.) The previous year (FY2012), LANS received a “one-time waiver” from the recommended consequences of its failure that year to meet the minimum award term extension requirements, in part because a quarter-billion-dollar security improvement project was mismanaged. More details of what turned out to be a highly controversial ruling by Acting NNSA Administrator Neile Miller at the time are on this page. Ms. Miller no longer works for the government.
Part of the LANS management fee is also dependent on successful completion of the Framework Agreement. As matters stand now, LANL will miss the (quite artificial) deadline and has caused an accident and ongoing safety hazard that places several program management objectives at LANL and WIPP at risk – a strong black mark under several performance measures.
For all these reasons, LANL was under considerable pressure to process and ship its legacy nitrate salt wastes. Perceived or real “production pressure” is a common cause of accidents in the DOE weapons complex, as elsewhere. (link)
So there was a financial motive involved. The private corporation Los Alamos National Security (LANS), which runs LANL, was under pressure to meet a deadline, and would have suffered financially by not meeting it. What does it matter if 200 million people have to breathe plutonium? It’s all about money. Of course, it’s too late now.
So there are still 368 drums at WIPP from this waste stream that are at risk of exploding. Also 57 containers are in a tent at Los Alamos (how reassuring, a freaking tent), and 116 have been shipped to WCS in Andrews, Texas. WCS is little more than just a hole in the ground.
BUT MAYBE IT DIDN’T COME FROM LOS ALAMOS AFTER ALL
Don Hancock above mentioned that it has not been confirmed that the waste involved came from Los Alamos, but the DOE believes it has. He mentioned Idaho National Laboratory (INL) as a possible source for the waste.
The top of the following graphic shows the isotope measurements for the WIPP release, measured at Station A. The bottom shows the average isotope concentrations for the LA-MIN02-V.001 waste stream from Los Alamos, which has been identified to be the source to the plutonium and americium release.
The WIPP measurements show there was 2 times as much Americium-241 released as Plutonium 239+240. The waste stream analysis shows that there was 92 times as much Plutonium-239+240 in the waste as Americium-241.
That is a huge difference in the isotopic ratios. There is 184 times as much americium as would have been expected from the average amounts in the waste stream.
While there are individual differences in the drums, and since we don’t know how much Plutonium-241 was released from WIPP, it is possible that the WIPP release came from this waste stream, though it really seems unlikely, and the container had to have been an “outlier” that did not reflect the average proportions of isotopes in the waste. If it turns out that more than one container contributed to the WIPP release, this becomes wildly improbable.
Maybe this is has all been a smokescreen to obscure the presence of much more dangerous high-level waste from a site like INL or Hanford.
THE INCREDIBLY TINY AMOUNTS OF PLUTONIUM AND AMERICIUM THAT ARE DANGEROUS
Well, this is what it is all about. We have seen what cesium-137 from Fukushima is doing to Japan. It will be active for 300 years. Plutonium-239 will be active for 241,000 years.
The ALI limits in the publication Medical Management of Internally Radiocontaminated Patients (p. 44) show that americium-241 and plutonium-239 are dangerous at one-33,000th the amount of cesium-137. One 55-gallon drum of cesium-137 could conaminate the USA for 300 years:
Dividing this volume by 33,000 gives us the volume of seven 00 capsules: