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Nuclear leak caused by 'wrong type of kitty litter,' confirms government report

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Some — but not all — kitty litter can be used to stabilize nuclear waste

A yearlong investigation by the US Department of Energy has confirmed that a major accident at a nuclear waste storage facility was caused by the wrong type of kitty litter. Last year, a single 55-gallon drum of waste material was found to have burst its seams at the New Mexico Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), dispersing radioactive material throughout the underground facility. The drum had been packed with organic rather than inorganic kitty litter, which led to "a series of ever-increasing heat releasing reactions" that breached the drum.

Although this scenario sounds far-fetched, kitty litter has been used to stabilize certain types of nuclear waste for decades. However, only inorganic litter contains the mineral silicates needed for the job. The substance itself is not used to "dry out" the waste, but actually stabilizes it before it dries out. As WIPP geologist Jim Conca explained last year: "‘Green’ cat litter [is] made with materials like wheat or corn. These organic litters do not have the silicate properties needed to chemically stabilize nitrate the correct way."

the incorrect use of "swheat scoop" kitty litter has led to $243 million in damages

According to the report, the "Swheat Scoop" brand of organic kitty litter was used to package drum 68660. As a result of the ensuing breach, 21 workers were contaminated with low-level doses of radiation and WIPP itself was completely shut down. The White House has requested $243 million in its 2016 budget to bring the plant back into operation, with US energy secretary Ernest Moniz commenting: "Bringing this facility back online is a very high priority and we believe we are on schedule to resume operations in about a year."

Speaking to The Verge about the incident last year, Conca commented: "Everything nuclear is proceduralized. It’s well laid out and everything everyone does is supposed to go up and down the chain of command. When you decide on a procedure for doing something like treating this waste, you don’t deviate from it. Ever. And when someone decides to deviate, that is a bad, bad thing."

Verge Video archive: Wasteland - The nuclear graveyard under New Mexico (2012)