(NaturalNews) A radiation leak that occurred at a nuclear waste storage facility in New Mexico back in February is being blamed on organic "kitty litter," according to reports. Officials from the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) say at least 57 barrels of nuclear waste filled with the questionable kitty-litter-like absorbent could be compromised, with one official saying they pose an "imminent" and "substantial" threat to public health and the environment.
Back in February, a truck delivering nuclear waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), the nation's only deep underground nuclear waste repository, caught fire inside a burial mine. A little more than a week later, a radiation release detected in WIPP's underground caverns led to a complete shutdown of the entire facility followed by an investigation, as it was the first accident at the site in over 15 years.
It was determined that the kitty litter used inside the storage bins was not stable and was causing some of the barrels to react to heat and explode. Workers at the facility were not initially notified about the incident, and at least 22 of them reportedly tested positive for radiation exposure after the emergency filtration systems were activated.
Normally, the kitty litter solution soaks up any remaining liquid inside the waste drums prior to their shipment. But a new formula caused the solution not to work, resulting in a dangerous reaction with nitrate salts also inside the barrels. According to State Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn, the situation is serious and needs to be addressed immediately to prevent a major disaster.
"Based on the evidence presented to NMED [New Mexico Environment Department], the current handling, storage, treatment and transportation of the hazardous nitrate salt bearing waste containers at LANL may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment," reads an order signed by Flynn.
Damaged bags, loose piles of magnesium oxide discovered in underground WIPP caverns
The order calls on LANL to come up with a swift plan of action for the site as well as the barrels. Many of the compromised barrels are located deep underground in protected caverns at WIPP, but others were shipped to outdoor sites, including at an LANL campus in northern New Mexico and a temporary site in West Texas.
Even at WIPP, immediate action needs to be taken to cordon off the areas where the affected drums are located. Any one of them could ignite unexpectedly, potentially causing a chain reaction. Open piles of magnesium oxide, which are supposed to be housed in large containers surrounding the barrels, have also been discovered, with no explanation as to where their containers went.
According to the Albuquerque Journal, these magnesium oxide bags weigh up to 4,200 pounds each and are normally placed atop nuclear waste storage containers to prevent radioactive material from being released into the environment over a 10,000-year period. Several of the bags were found to be "grossly disturbed," with their outer material "disintegrating."
Hundreds of nuclear waste barrels at risk of explosion
At least 368 drums of nuclear waste are said to be at risk of a chemical reaction at WIPP, according to federal officials. If left unaddressed, these drums could cause an environmental disaster if radioactive plutonium, americium and other harmful elements make their way out of the repository and into groundwater or open air.
"I'm just dying to know why this happened and who approved it, because it was a dumb idea," said Jim Conco, a former WIPP worker, to the Carlsbad Current-Argus about the kitty litter switch. "You just can't make a change to the procedure without reviewing it."