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Earth Power Idle Science

Organic Cat Litter May Have Caused Nuclear Waste Accident 174

Posted by samzenpus
from the that's-a-bad-kitty dept.
mdsolar (1045926) writes in with a story about how important buying the right kind of kitty litter can be. "In February, a 55-gallon drum of radioactive waste burst open inside America's only nuclear dump, in New Mexico. Now investigators believe the cause may have been a pet store purchase gone bad. 'It was the wrong kitty litter,' says James Conca, a geochemist in Richland, Wash., who has spent decades in the nuclear waste business. It turns out there's more to cat litter than you think. It can soak up urine, but it's just as good at absorbing radioactive material. 'It actually works well both in the home litter box as well as the radiochemistry laboratory,' says Conca, who is not directly involved in the current investigation. Cat litter has been used for years to dispose of nuclear waste. Dump it into a drum of sludge and it will stabilize volatile radioactive chemicals. The litter prevents it from reacting with the environment. And this is what contractors at Los Alamos National Laboratory were doing as they packed Cold War-era waste for shipment to the dump. But at some point, they decided to make a switch, from clay to organic. 'Now that might sound nice, you're trying to be green and all that, but the organic kitty litters are organic,' says Conca. Organic litter is made of plant material, which is full of chemical compounds that can react with the nuclear waste. 'They actually are just fuel, and so they're the wrong thing to add,' he says. Investigators now believe the litter and waste caused the drum to slowly heat up 'sort of like a slow burn charcoal briquette instead of an actual bomb.' After it arrived at the dump, it burst."
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Organic Cat Litter May Have Caused Nuclear Waste Accident

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  • More Cold War Waste (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mr D from 63 (3395377) on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:03PM (#47094825)
    It should be noted that this waste is from cold war era defense programs, and not used commercial nuclear fuel which is much easier to handle and store. It should also be noted that although the writers make every effort to call the WIPP a "dump" in order to conjure up images of a simple landfill, it is actually an underground geological (saltbed) monitored storage facility created for storage of radioactive waste.

    Unlike chemical from many industries that are dumped in many places with much less control, this is an example of quick recognition and response to a problem. Cold war nuclear waste comes in all kinds of nasty liquid, solid, and semi-solid forms and will continue to bring challenges as the slow cleanup slog continues.

    Of course, this slashdot submission is one of an ongoing number of agenda driven submissions that intends to obfuscate the challenges of cold ware era defense program neglect with commercial nuclear power. Fortunately, most slashdot readers pick up on the obvious.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:13PM (#47094899)

      It is absolutely an agenda submission. It even looks to me like it's trying to be critical of the organic movement. I'll reserve my opinion of that kind of thing, but in this case, "organic" means what it actually means, not the hippie non-term it has become. I'd rather they say it was because they switched from clay-based to plant-based kitty litter. The risks of this should have been obvious to someone working with radioactive disposal.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:52PM (#47095231)

        Not to mention, it wasn't the kitty litter that caused this.

        Newsflash: If you work with nuclear waste, don't go around changing the recipes without asking your boss!

      • by Shakrai (717556) on Monday May 26, 2014 @10:16PM (#47096839) Journal

        It even looks to me like it's trying to be critical of the organic movement. I'll reserve my opinion of that kind of thing, but in this case, "organic" means what it actually means, not the hippie non-term it has become. I'd rather they say it was because they switched from clay-based to plant-based kitty litter.

        In my experience organic cat litter is inferior, in every meaningful measure. Clumping, odor control, and the most important one: My cat's willingness to use it, vs. expressing her disapproval by shitting on the carpet, which she has done every time I've tried a non-clay litter, no matter how gradually it was introduced.

        Can't say that I have any hands on experience with radioactive waste disposal, but I'll certainly be sticking with clay litter for my more mundane needs.

        • by TheCarp (96830)

          We have tried a few kinds now and our cat has never seemed to dislike any of them in particular. The problem with most of this stuff is its too light. That is great when you are bringing in a massive bag of it, but it means the individual litter particles are light too and get EVERYWHERE.

          Our most recent attempt has been some stuff that is comrpessed into small pellets that break down into more of a powder in the box as its being used. That stuff is much better at stayin in the litter box and the pad in fron

        • by djdanlib (732853)

          Same experience here... There were turds in all these hidden locations, because the cat knew I would be upset about it... and the cat was always so guilty looking and skittish (normally greets me like a dog) when I would come home to a fresh one. So I didn't even find out about the clumping or odor control. It doesn't seem like they even tested the product before going to market.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          We switched from clay to recycled newspaper pellets with great success. The pellets absorb the urine, and the poops just hang out until scooped. Clumping not necessary.

        • by Daetrin (576516)
          Well if your cat doesn't like it there's not a lot you can do about that (not nothing, but not a lot.)

          However since our cats like it just fine i've found it superior in a number of respects. The pine pellets we use are better at odor control, it's much easier to clean the cat pan, and there's no cloud of clay dust when pouring it in. The one aspect that is _not_ so good is that when the pine pellets break down into sawdust the sawdust gets tracked all over. We put a pad under/in front of the cat pan and t
      • I currently work with reclaiming nuclear facilities. There's a mandatory "Environmental Sustainability" form which has to be completed with any new purchase that has to go through procurement. If at any time a product that's purchased has an environmentally friendly or energy-saving substitute, you have to use it or fill out more information as to WHY you need to use the product which is not environmentally friendly. This may not be the case, and I'm not completely certain what the situation is, but I'm
    • Re: (Score:1, Troll)

      by Jmc23 (2353706)

      ...this is an example of quick recognition and response to a problem.

      um, no. How can you call it quick recognition when we're talking about cold-war era waste and products from decades ago and the only reason they realized something was wrong was because of an 'explosion'?

      • um, no. How can you call it quick recognition when we're talking about cold-war era waste and products from decades ago and the only reason they realized something was wrong was because of an 'explosion'?

        I was talking in terms of the waste facility where the waste is being moved to, not the cleanup sites where it originated.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Jmc23 (2353706)
          Really? I quote

          The Board identified the root cause to be a failure to fully understand, characterize, and control the radiological hazard among management at WIPP, the operating contractor, and the Carlsbad Field Office.

          Not sure why I was modded down for pointing out you were making an assumption without any data. Slashdots seems to be turning into a hangout for believers and ignorant retaliatory tribes.

          For you to be even technically correct, they would have had to identify what exactly was the problem, and as anybody who can navigate a website can see, they still aren't sure and they still do not know when their second report on the actual causes will be out.

          They did respond quickly though, so that's goo

          • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

            by Mr D from 63 (3395377)
            I never stated that there was zero fault at any level at WIPP. Frankly, I don't have all the data. But its clear that they had monitoring in place to recognize problems with the stored waste, so that the breached container didn't just sit leaking (as has been a problem at the "cold war" sites).

            If I were to guess why you may have been modded down, it was calling the container failure an "explosion". Of course, its a relative term, but I didn't see anything indicative the force of the breach being characte
      • by Gareth Iwan Fairclough (2831535) on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:35PM (#47095095)

        ...this is an example of quick recognition and response to a problem.

        um, no. How can you call it quick recognition when we're talking about cold-war era waste and products from decades ago and the only reason they realized something was wrong was because of an 'explosion'?

        It can be called "quick recognition" because it actually was "quick recognition" of a problem that simply didn't happened before the new litter was used.

    • Yes let's not confuse cold war era waste with easily handled nuclear fuel? Thanks for throwing in how we are smart enough not to fall for this obvious "agenda" We know who has the agenda, to create a "safe use" of leukemia causing substances that apparently no one wants to deal with except some "monitored salt mine" it has been said from the beginning that by the time you extract the uranium and go through building a nuclear reactor which involves demolishing it too, it it hardly pays off. We end up using
      • I would never imply that waste from nuclear power plants is not a problem. It certainly is. I was clarifying the differences between spent fuel "waste" and the stuff which is coming from these federal sites. Cold war and pre-cold war activities produced stuff of all types of liquid and semi-liquid compositions that is a nightmare to deal with. Yes, in comparison, solid nuclear fuel rods are quite easy to manage. Those differences are real despite your opinion of nuclear power.

        I don't want to get off topi
    • by unitron (5733)

      You have used "obfuscate" where you should have used "conflate" in your attempt to imply that which you wish us to infer.

      • Agreed, conflate fits better. Thanks
        • by unitron (5733)

          And now I'm going to disagree with your characterization of this story as "...one of an ongoing number of agenda driven submissions...".

          It's just a story about "who knew they used kitty litter when storing nuclear waste, much less that it has to be a specific type of kitty litter?".

          Unless you're convinced that any time someone says "nuclear waste" without saying "nuclear waste, but the Cold War weapons kind, not the cute, cuddly, super-friendly power plant kind" that it's some kind of conspiracy rather than

          • If you have gone back and looked at the submission history of mdsolar, then I'll respect your opinion and agree to disagree. If you haven't done so, then you missed my entire point.
    • by nospam007 (722110) *

      "Unlike chemical from many industries that are dumped in many places with much less control, this is an example of quick recognition and response to a problem."

      Quick recognition would be not mixing compostable organic stuff with something that has to be stored for 200.000 years.

      • I was talking about recognition of the failure at the waste facility right after it occurred. My wording maybe could have been sharper. There was definitely an f-up at LANL where those folks packed the waste. I maybe should have said "event", because the bigger "problem" and its cause were certainly not caught. Allowing a change of material in that manner is something that shows the NRC needs more authority over these activities, IMO. At a nuclear plant, for instance, you cannot exchange material or parts w
  • I still cant log in! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:06PM (#47094845)

    You still have a bad cert, Slashdot. What's going on?

    • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

      by plopez (54068)

      Just trust everyone..

  • Heard it on the radio a couple of days ago.

  • by oodaloop (1229816) on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:10PM (#47094879)
    Don't go green.
    • by rubycodez (864176) on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:16PM (#47094929)

      clay is as "green" as it gets, pure natural inert material with practically infinite supply

      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:42PM (#47095143) Journal
        It's considered a nuisance in this context because it's largely inert (and often formulated for absorbency and clumping, so people are advised not to flush it): Once used, the clay just adds weight and bulk to the solid waste stream and won't be going anywhere in approximately geologic time. Aside from very modest risks from mineral dusts, it's harmless enough; but it's not wildly efficient to landfill something that's mostly clay just to deal with animal feces that would degrade in a few weeks to months under proper conditions.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by rubycodez (864176)

          I'll only point out landfills are started by digging a hole and removing things like clay.

          • Sure; but the people who use them prefer that they fill up as slowly as possible, because then they have to go identify another site that isn't at the other end of nowhere, has a lot of room, and nobody nearby who can make NIMBY stick. Clay-based litters are pretty much wholly innocuous, this isn't one of the 'green' replacements where the original was some sort of polychlorinated death that they are trying to phase out; but they add unnecessary volume to the solid waste stream, and volume is pretty much wh
        • by countach (534280)

          Why, were they planning the flush the nuclear waste?

  • This must have been very poor quality kitty litter. Given what my evil black cat puts into her cat box, the highest of quality in kitty litter must be obtained to prevent a similar explosion.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    "Stupid hippie crap."

  • ...dem radioactive urine-packin' kittehz.

    Yeah Kittehz!

    http://24.media.tumblr.com/ab9... [tumblr.com]

  • Well Duh! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lgftsa (617184) on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:48PM (#47095195)

    Just because a material has a everyday name, it doesn't mean that the original specification didn't have a chemical/mechanical/biological/radiological/whatever reason for specifying it.

    If all the material property requirements were met with a commonly available product that didn't require an expensive supply chain, then that's great.

    HOWEVER...

    I suspect that originally somewhere in the nuclear disposal system, a group identified the need, a solution was found and a materiel was specified. Along the line or through the years, the REASON for that specification was lost to the end of the purchasing chain and the poor sod who orders the stuff was given a directive to "buy sustainably" and substituted the new material without being aware of the original intent.

    That person probably wasn't even been aware of the use of the material - they may have though it was used in the kennels for the guard dogs. It's a nuclear material disposal site. Need to know is important. (1) The suppler wouldn't have known, either.

    There's lots of complaints of expensive procedures and materials(2), but this is a perfect example of the need for a formal supply chain system with provable provenance. You may BUY a commonly available kitty litter to fulfill the order, but what arrives in the sacks will have to match the specification sheet.

    1. Yes, this is irony. The accident may have been prevented if the purchasing officer knew what it was for. Then again, maybe not.

    2. Ferrous hammers are a bad idea around strong magnetic fields. If you're in a lab with a MRI or similar and lots of delicate equipment, a hammer to undo the dog on a vacuum chamber had better be a very special hammer. The kind that you can buy today for less than a hundred bucks, but in the 60's had to be engineered from scratch. Thank someone else's R&D for the fact you can buy a (nearly) chemically inert, non-ferrous, non-sparking hammer for a pittance.

    • Thank someone else's R&D for the fact you can buy a (nearly) chemically inert, non-ferrous, non-sparking hammer for a pittance.

      Probably the USN - who was buying chemically inert, non-ferrous, non-sparking hammers for use inside of shipboard ammunition and powder magazines and around various other kinds of ordinance decades before MRI systems became commonplace.

    • by Muad'Dave (255648)

      ... a hammer to undo the dog on a vacuum chamber had better be a very special hammer.

      $30 wooden** baseball bat. Problem solved.

      ** Yes, aluminum would work, but I bet the eddy currents generated when you swing it in a 5T magnetic field would either slow it down immensely or make it too hot to hold.

      Yes, I'm kidding.

    • by Rogue974 (657982)

      I was going to say pretty much the same thing. This article isn't really a slam on environmental, or an attack of nuclear, this appears to me to be EXACTLY what you wrote. Purchasing decided to make a change to what was being purchased and didn't understand the reason why something was spec'd as such.

      I get regular calls from purchasing because they found something cheaper that they think will work perfectly well as a replacement for part X. Every time we go through the exercise, we find 1 of 3 things:

      1)

  • by QuadEddie (459328) on Monday May 26, 2014 @04:58PM (#47095279)
    The nuclear accident is now known by the operation handle: Katpiss Evergreen
  • ... I welcome our 20 foot tall radioactive cat overlords.

  • by ckedge (192996) on Monday May 26, 2014 @10:12PM (#47096813) Journal

    The "organics" did not react with the "nuclear" part of the "nuclear waste", they reacted with the 1% acid that was still in the solution.

    A pure chemical reaction.

    (Made complicated/ugly by the combustion products carrying away small amounts of nuclear waste, for sure.)

  • Claiming that kitty litter caused this is rather like say the Tacoma Bridge collapse [wikipedia.org] was caused by Wind.

    The failure in both cases was Human error!

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." -- Albert Einstein

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