Scientists unable to recreate chemical
reaction suspected in New Mexico radiation leak
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[June 28, 2014]
By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Government scientists have not
been able to replicate a chemical reaction suspected of causing a
radiation leak at a U.S. nuclear waste dump in New Mexico, complicating
efforts to understand what went wrong, a U.S. Energy Department official
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where drums of radioactive refuse
from nuclear weapons sites and laboratories are buried in salt
caverns 2,100 feet (640 meters) underground, has been shut down
since Feb. 14 when at least one drum ruptured.
The mishap near the town of Carlsbad exposed 22 workers at the
facility with low levels of radiation and ranked as its worst
accident and one of the few blemishes on its safety record since it
opened in 1999. The facility is the nation’s only underground
repository for so-called transuranic waste.
Shipments from U.S. nuclear labs of tools, rags and other debris
contaminated with radioisotopes such as plutonium are on hold
indefinitely as scientists probe the accident.
Investigators have said a chemical reaction between nitrate salts
and organic kitty litter used as an absorbent generated sufficient
heat to melt seals on at least one drum of contaminated sludge,
which had originally come from the Los Alamos National Laboratory
near Santa Fe.
But experiments conducted by scientists from Los Alamos and other
U.S. nuclear labs have failed to reproduce the chemical reaction,
and hundreds of drums of similarly packaged nuclear waste are still
intact, said Energy Department spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” she said.
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Managers of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant have said it may take as
long as three years for the facility to be fully operational,
complicating disposal of containers of transuranic waste stored
above ground at nuclear research complexes such as Los Alamos and
Idaho National Laboratory.
Officials at Los Alamos last month notified New Mexico they would
not be able to meet a June 30 deadline to remove drums of waste
stored on a mesa where they could be threatened by wildfires.
Idaho National Laboratory faces a 2018 deadline to remove drums and
boxes of transuranic waste sent to the eastern Idaho desert for
storage from a defunct federal nuclear weapons-making plant outside
Geisler said the Energy Department was reviewing disposal options
but she could not provide details.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho, Editing by Alex
Dobuzinskis and Ken Wills)
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