Tuesday, November 25, 2014

One More Thing To Worry About

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Most of us are familiar with this nursery rhyme, which illustrates the logical progression from small actions or inactions to larger consequences.

Here's a modern example.
In February, a drum of radioactive waste exploded at U.S.'s only underground nuclear waste repository. The Santa Fe New Mexican has released a bombshell report on the comedy of errors, which seems to have all started with a typo specifying the wrong type of kitty litter...

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico is now shut down, awaiting a $500 million recovery plan that could take years. WIPP is made of up salt caverns, which are supposed to safely entomb barrels of radioactive waste for thousands of years. The barrels contain gloves, equipment, and other waste products contaminated by nuclear weapons research, and they're often packed with kitty litter to absorb extra liquids before being sealed, hopefully for eons.

Waste Drum 68660, the one that burst, was packed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) ... the LANL and its contractors made a number of missteps, including using an organic wheat-based kitty litter instead of a clay-base inorganic kitty litter. Thanks to that switcheroo, the drum ultimately contained the ingredients of a bomb. On February, the drum blasted open. Temperatures rose to 1600 F in WIPP's underground cavern, and 20 workers were exposed to low levels of radiation.

Officials tell the New Mexican the exact conditions of the explosion have not been recreated in a lab. But the organic kitty litter has been under suspicion because it can release heat as it decomposes. Waste Drum 68660 also contained nitrate salts, trace metals from a glove, and acid neutralizer to deal with its high acidity, which altogether provided the other components needed for an explosion.

LANL has never explained why it switched to organic kitty litter, though emails obtained by the New Mexican suggest it originated with a dumb typo in a LANL policy manual that had gone unnoticed by higher ups for over a year:
The revision, approved by LANL, took effect Aug. 1, 2012....explicitly directed waste packagers at the lab to "ENSURE an organic absorbent (kitty litter) is added to the waste" when packaging drums of nitrate salt.

"Does it seem strange that the procedure was revised to specifically require organic kitty litter to process nitrate salt drums?" [David] Freeman, Nuclear Waste Partnership's chief nuclear engineer at WIPP, asked a colleague in a May 28 email.

Freeman went on to echo some of the possible reasons for the change bandied about in earlier emails, such as the off-putting dust or perfumed scents characteristic of clay litter. But his colleague, Mark Pearcy, a member of the team that reviews waste to ensure it is acceptable to be stored at WIPP, offered a surprising explanation.

"General consensus is that the 'organic' designation was a typo that wasn't caught," (David Freeman, Nuclear Waste Partnership's chief nuclear engineer at WIPP) wrote, implying that the directions should have called for inorganic litter.
Since September 2012, in fact, the LANL packed up to 5,565 barrels of radioactive waste with organic kitty litter but mislabeled it as inorganic kitty litter—16 of these barrels are also highly acidic and contain nitrate salts like the one that burst. It took an explosion before anyone noticed the mistake.

In addition to being horrifying on its own, the February explosion raises serious question about the safety of nuclear waste storage, especially when you consider how "comically simplistic," to use the New Mexican's words, the explosion's origins seems to be. There are many more worrying details in the New Mexican story, including how LANL took other shortcuts in packing the drum and failed to inform WIPP. It certainly doesn't inspire confidence in our nation's handling of radioactive waste.
Exploding barrels of nuclear waste because someone failed to type the letters "i-n" ... the literary equivalent of a horeshoe nail.

It also makes you wonder about the editing, review, and approval process. And raises a questions about why the manual was changed in the first place. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

There is a companion story to this one that makes for interesting, and at times disturbing, reading.  Some excerpts:
... In 1983, a small fee of just a tenth of a penny per kilowatt-hour began appearing on electricity bills in America. The money was meant for Yucca Mountain, a wrinkle of land on the edge of the Nevada Test Site that was being turned into a massive tomb for the atomic age. Here, waste from nuclear power plants and weapons would be stored for at least 10,000 years until radioactivity faded to safe levels. Governments could fail and civilizations could fall, but Yucca Mountain was supposed to remain.

In 2014, after the Department of Energy had amassed $30 billion for the nuclear waste disposal fund, it quietly stopped collecting the fee. It stopped because a court told it to, because the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository did not exist. Five miles of tunnels—out of the intended 40—had already been carved into the rock, but there was no radioactive waste stored there. After blowing past its planned opening date of January 31, 1998 by an embarrassing margin, the Obama administration in 2010 abandoned the languishing plans to build Yucca Mountain. Three-and-a-half years later, a court ruled the federal government couldn't keep collecting fees for a site it had no intention of building.
(Previous post on that topic here.)

The story goes on to discuss the problem of storing nuclear waste for incredibly long periods of time - up to 10,000 years. One proposal was the development of "ray cats, creatures bred to change color in the presence of radiation—like walking, purring, yarn-chasing Geiger counters."

That may seem like a fanciful and humorous solution. But the problem is serious.
The Hanford Nuclear Reservation (Hanford, Washington) produced nearly all of the plutonium that went into the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. Then, it was decommissioned. Now, it is the site of the largest environmental cleanup project in the country.

Fifty-six million gallons of radioactive waste sit in 177 steel tanks buried underground. The waste ranges from soupy to sludgy, and it has the unfortunate habit of leaking out of the aging tanks into the groundwater.

This wasn't the plan, of course. The idea was to build a vitrification plant on site, where radioactive waste could be mixed with molten glass and poured into steel columns—making the impermeable nuclear coffins that would then be entombed in Yucca Mountain. But the cleanup at Hanford has been horribly mismanaged. The vitrification plant, due to open in 2011, is still half complete. Of course, even if we manage to safely solidify and seal the radioactive waste at Hanford, we still don't have anywhere to put it.

Meanwhile, the radioactive waste keeps leaking.
There are no "ray cats" at Hanford. But there are the usual critters and plants. If exposed to the leaking radioactive material, they become "biological radiological vectors."
Rabbits, badgers, and gophers that somehow ingest leaked radioactive material can spread their radioactive poop across thousands of acres. The radioactive creatures have to be hunted down, and their poop safely cleaned up by people in suits. Even tiny termites and ants can unearth radioactive material.

And then there are tumbleweeds, whose taproots can reach 20 feet down to suck up buried radioactive waste. In the winter, those taproots wither, and it's off the tumbleweeds go, tumbling miles away with the wind. In 2010, Hanford had to chase down 30 radioactive weeds.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I'd have to be concerned about radioactive poop and tumbleweeds that glow in the dark.

Just one more thing to worry about...


Anonymous said...

A glowing story, indeed!

Old NFO said...

Gah... I have ENOUGH other stuff on my plate... although glow in the dark tumbleweeds WOULD make it easier to dodge them... :-)

Well Seasoned Fool said...

Maybe with Harry Reid becoming the Minority Leader, Yucca Mountain can be reactivated. May need to wait until 2017 when he loses the next election.

Bag Blog said...

I have lived in NM and understand the "organic" kitty litter problem. There are lots of silly tree-huggers and granolas living in the Los Alamos and Santa Fe area. If you put the word "organic" in front of any other word it just about causes orgasm.

CenTexTim said...

Toejam - I's a (h)toping things get better...

NFO - Well, hopefully it'll take your mind off Ferguson...

WSF - I'd love to see the new repub senate say "Fuck You" to Reid and reactivate Yucca Mtn while he's still in office.

BB - That was my first thought - that 'organic' was substituted for 'inorganic.' But it looks like it really was just a typo. Incompetence trumps ideology.