Exploding waste barrels and the post-nuclear future

It seems that the stubborn problem of nuclear waste will not stay off the radar, no matter how hard the nuclear industry tries to hide it.

The latest development is a newly discovered leak at the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico, near Carlsbad, California.

Vermont’s own Arnie Gundersen, of Fairewinds Associates made an appearance on CNN last night to explain the problem, an example of the all too likely scenario of human error intervening in the theoretically “safe” longterm storage of nuclear waste.

Apparently, conventional cat litter has, for decades, been the preferred material to soak up spills in nuclear labs. So it made sense that, when the question of moisture suppression arose in long-term storage of nuclear waste, kitty litter efficiently answered the call.  Barrels containing the waste were packed for long term storage with kitty litter in order to draw moisture away from the sensitive contents.  

Unfortunately, some well-meaning soul, probably in procurement, changed the type of cat litter used to an organic variety, apparently without consulting anyone with a knowledge of chemistry.  

As Arnie explains, the organic cat litter is corn-based, and when the corn absorbs the nitrogen in the container, a very volatile and unstable compound resembling nitroglycerin is the product. This has already led to the explosion of a barrel in the underground facility In New Mexico, broadcasting radiation contamination all over the place.

It is unknown how many more containers are affected; or even where those may be located.

According to the order, two of those containers are known to be at WIPP. It doesn’t say where the rest of the barrels are, but Los Alamos was in the process of transferring the last of thousands of barrels of waste from decades of nuclear bomb making to the underground dump when the leak shuttered the half-mile (800-meter)-deep mine.

Bad enough is the discovery and clean-up effort that will be required inside the WIPP underground facility.  Far more concerning is the fate of the unknown number of similarly affected barrels that may be resting above ground in locations  there and elsewhere in the country.

Arnie points to the high temperatures coming with summer that will only serve to exacerbate the explosion potential from those undetected barrels.

This material gets more and more unstable as it gets warmer; and, of course, we’re heading into the summer months on the desert.   So, those barrels that are above ground, if they were to blow like the one that did below ground, we’d have a serious public health effect.

As they listen to Entergy’s arguments that there will be no need for an evacuation plan once Yankee has been shuttered for six months, one can only hope that the NRC will bear in mind the lesson on the dangers of simple human error illustrated at WIPP.

To that they should add the mental image of mice and other vermin gaining access over the decades before the plant is fully neutralized.  Think of all those non-humans randomly gnawing away at wires and other essential conduits.

If that isn’t enough to chill their blood, they should think of a solitary watchman, ten years on the job at pay Entergy deems fitting for a non-returning facility.  Think of that watchman snoozing fitfully while some fledgling terrorist or foolish teenager breeches aging security features to gain access to nuclear materials or scrap copper fittings.

There are so many ways in which to fear the post nuclear future.  We will have created so much toxic product; so many substances that didn’t exist before human folly created them.

Could they be our final legacy?

About Sue Prent

Artist/Writer/Activist living in St. Albans, Vermont with my husband since 1983. I was born in Chicago; moved to Montreal in 1969; lived there and in Berlin, W. Germany until we finally settled in St. Albans.

6 thoughts on “Exploding waste barrels and the post-nuclear future

  1. My wife & I worked back country at Bandelier Natl Monument, in New Mexico, for a while. Bandelier is next door to Los Alamos, separated by a 24-foot roadway. The two places are part of a rugged and remote part of ancestral Taoan lands, one jagged six- or seven-hundred foot canyon after another, all of which feed the upper Rio Grande and Santa Fe, fifty miles or so to the east, during the short summer rainy season.

    You talk to people, you hear things. For example, one of the guys we worked with had worked in maintenence at Los Alamos for fifteen years before becoming a ranger. He had stories of thousands of barrels of waste, of all levels of radioactivity and toxicity, dating back decades and “stored” in fifty-gallon metal drums in crevasses and blind canyons everywhere on the site, rusting, leaking, slowly disintegrating.

    The five hundred or so barrels of nuke waste transported to the Carlsbad site are likely just the tip of the…well, iceberg doesn’t seem like the right word here.

    (Incidentally, there were three major wildfires in the immediate area of Los Alamos over the last fifteen years, two of which threatened to incinerate the Lab.)

  2. I am posting the link to a Forbes article giving the industry’s more or less “official” response to the kitty litter stink.

    While it downplays the longterm impact of the issue, it completely ignores the lesson about human error in the nuclear “chain” that should have been the overarching take-away.

    I wanted this link at the end of the story so that I can easily go back in a couple of years to find out how they followed through with their proposed fixes and whether or not they have tumbled to the significance of human error in the best laid plans with regard to the most destructive man-made material on earth.

  3. that this could be happening — exploding barrels of nuclear waste??? Please!

    How many nuclear-shitstorms do we need to get that we don’t know shit.

    As we continue to watch — at a distance not afforded the Japanese ppl — the nuclear-waste spewing debacle of Fukushima which happened due to a power failure supposedly due to the “tsunami”.

    Although certainly a tsunami is a bit more challenging than other forms of power failures, we need to remember the salient point that there were previous tsunami boundaries established which precluded the building beyond said boundaries — another chapter in the annals of “Human Errors” and the NRCs infamous “Lessons [NOT] Learned”. Although NRC is not directly a party to the Fukushima debacle, still inderectly a part of the nuclear cult(ure) which refuses “Human Error” as a cause of the various nuclear mishaps (reported or unreported).    

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