WIPP; DOE Admits Fire/Heat Event In Panel & Solidifying Agent May Play A Role

DOE officials at WIPP admitted earlier this week that there was some sort of fire or heat event in room 7 in the WIPP nuclear waste storage facility. The event was characterized as a finding of “melted plastic and rubber on some drums and boxes of waste, indicating there was some kind of heat generated in the room where the waste is stored.”

Last week in our ongoing analysis of photos released by DOE we found a large number of failed polypropylene bags that hold magnesium oxide. The bags referred to as MGO bags are supposed to last for two years before the bags are allowed to begin to degrade by DOE standards. Waste only began being placed into this room in January 2014 making the failed bags already suspect. Now with the admission of heat and possibly fire in the room there may be a reason for the MGO bag failures. The material has a very low melting point of 130F. If the heat/fire event in the room caused the MGO bags to melt, the event was widespread around the edges and center of the room. The failed bags along with bags that did not fail can be seen in the photos below.

MGO_1

MGO_2

MGO_1

 

DOE admitted last week at the town hall meeting for WIPP that nitrate salts were considered suspect due to their volatility. A blog contributor at Forbes had claimed this was due to “organic kitty litter”. This was initially widely dismissed due to the blogger’s track record of inaccurate statements. Now DOE is admitting there might be at least some truth to the claim. DOE has admitted that the nitrate salts were being solidified using an unnamed material. But DOE did admit that a switch to an organic material could be to blame. A NM environmental official also gave some admission to a kitty litter type material being possibly involved.

The unidentified substance containing elements mirroring nitrate salt is kitty litter, Conca said. The DOE on Tuesday confirmed that any waste with liquid is typically treated with “an absorbent like kitty litter.

WIPP Recovery Manager Jim Blankenhorn told a town hall meeting last week that after several trips into the half-mile-deep repository, officials believe the radiation leak was likely caused by a chemical reaction in nuclear waste that was mixed with nitrate salt. Blankenhorn said a switch from a non-organic substance to organic was what triggered the event.

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ryan Flynn confirmed to the paper on Monday that he has heard Department of Energy officials discuss the possibility that kitty litter may have been to blame for the radiation leak. Flynn said it is one of many theories and nothing is certain at this time.”

Various types of absorbents are also used in various types of kitty litter. One of the main ones being bentonite clay. This was also found to be used as a solidification agent for other kinds of nuclear waste. So this could be the original material being used. So far DOE has not provided any additional information. WIPP is not allowed to accept liquid radioactive wastes. We were unable to find where or when it was approved by DOE to use absorbents to subvert the rules against liquid wastes. It is also not clear what process DOE is using to test or determine the suitability of any solidifying agents that might be being used at the national labs.

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