Yes, Organic Cat Litter Caused the Nuclear Waste Leak
A year after the explosion at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report concluding that the incident was the result of drum #68660 bursting after workers used organic instead of inorganic cat litter to soak up the nuclear waste. A summary of the report can be read here.
According to the report, “chemically incompatible contents in Drum 68660, in addition to the configuration of materials in the drum, supported exothermic chemical reactions that led to a thermal runaway.”
Cat litter is excellent at absorbing liquid, making it an ideal candidate for cleanup and containment of hazardous liquids. Inorganic cat litter is made from clay containing silicates that are excellent at neutralizing and stabilizing chemicals like nitrates. The wheat-based organic litter had compounds that reacted like a fuel with the nitrates instead of neutralizing them.
During the accident investigation, the Department of Energy established a Technical Assessment Team to evaluate the chemical reactions responsible for the failure of the drum. It should be noted that the report states that the exact cause could not be ascertained with “absolute certainty” because of several constraints. Access to the drum was limited as samples could only be connected by a device, contents of the drum were documented but the drum itself could not be chemically evaluated, and the process of containing the drum were not completely documented. The TAT conclusion however is based on strong evidence that the organic material was responsible for the leak.
Organic is not always better, folks.