Regulations forbid liquid waste from burial at WIPP so the idea was to pack the barrels with an absorbing material. One of the most absorbent is kitty litter.
Kitty litter itself is not explosive, in fact it's a good absorbent. The problem was well known for decades: it's not wise to put chemicals together that can have a chemical reaction and explosion.
What happened at WIPP on Valentine's Day in 2014 has never been exactly clarified. What is known is that the kitty litter used was chemically incompatible. It absorbed the liquid but it also reacted with the chemicals in the barrel. All 683 barrels from Los Alamos shipped to WIPP and brought underground share this problem. A problem also shared by 100 barrels stranded on the surface by the accident. Those 100 barrels were shipped to a low level dump site in Texas called Waste Control Specialists. WCS had been owned by Harold Simmons a well connected Texas billionaire investor and GOP backer best known for funding the Swift Boat veterans group that opposed presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
According to Don Hancock, one of the nation's leading experts on nuclear waste and director of the Southwest Research and Information Center the explosion at WIPP "was not supposed to happen." Hancock said that the explosion occurred "as a result of contractors and regulators who were not paying attention and doing the right thing." Hancock adds that the regulations to prevent the explosion at WIPP already did exist and it was the "enforcing of the regulation that wasn't adequate."
Hancock insists that the regulations already on the books would be enough, but that nuclear weapons have often evaded oversight because of their strategic military role.
The problem lies in the long history of America's nuclear weapons complex which was top secret during World War II and decades of cold war with the Soviet Union. Nuclear weapons production and the waste stream it produced was kept from public knowledge for decades. In Hanford along the Columbia river in Washington where plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was made, waste was either released directly into the environment or later stored in now leaky and outmoded tanks.
After the last reactor was shut down the 585 square mile site was transformed into the largest nuclear waste dump in the western hemisphere and as a result two-thirds of the high level nuclear waste in the United States is now stored on the site about 200 miles southeast of Seattle.
With no real federal regulation the massive facility operated largely in secret until 1986. Through a series of lawsuits the state gained some control of the hazardous waste stored at Hanford but experts like Hancock say some officials are convinced that nuclear weapons sites should be independent of state oversight.
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