Cat Got Your Nuclear Waste? Emily Baker, Brian Brooks, Jacob Fisher, Elise Smutko

Emily Baker, Brian Brooks, Jacob Fisher, Elise Smutko

Professor San Martin

HI 2400

16 November 2018

Ialenti, Vincent. “Waste Makes Haste: How a Campaign to Speed Up Nuclear Waste Shipments Shutdown the WIPP Long-Term Repository.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 74:4 (2018): 262-275. Web.


    Cat Got Your Nuclear Waste?

The author, Vincent Ialenti, is an ethnographic researcher at George Washington University who investigates the disposal of nuclear waste around the globe.

On Valentine’s Day 2014, a nuclear waste canister exploded 2,000 feet underground in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP houses the U.S military’s transuranic waste. This accident caused WIPP to close for three years and accumulate $2 billion in damage costs.  A simple materials error caused the explosion. WIPP scientists put organic, wheat based cat litter inside a nuclear waste barrel instead of the usual inorganic clay cat litter. The litter soaks up liquids produced in the barrels of nuclear waste. The Department of Energy (D.O.E) investigation at WIPP concluded that swapping inorganic kitty litter for organic litter caused a nuclear waste canister to spontaneously erupt into an underground firework. Yet the D.O.E did not consider factors that would lead up to their employees accidentally substituting inorganic for organic kitty litter, like laissez-faire upper management or employees pressured to complete tasks in a hurried manner.

Ethnographer Vincent Ialenti visited Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to understand how an explosion occurred at a lab that had operated smoothly for the last 15 years. Over a 10 week period, Ialenti conducted 43 interviews with scientists, safety experts, and journalists to collect expert opinion on the events leading up to the WIPP explosion. From these interviews, Ialenti argues that “ sped-up waste shipment tempos, hands-off oversight, and schedule-driven workforces – was primarily… responsible for overseeing the transuranic waste work of Los Alamos and WIPP” (Ialenti, 264). The factors for the accident were a product of the 3706 Campaign, an initiative to increase transuranic shipments from Los Alamos to WIPP.  

Sub-contractors at LANL and WIPP executed the 3706 Campaign through the company Environmental Dimensions (ED). ED recklessly processed nuclear waste around the clock. Their employees were not scientifically trained and were unaware of the unstable behavior of transuranic waste. Supervisors employed by ED consciously hired waste managers ignorant to the sensitive nature of nuclear waste. ED supervisors were civilians who were time oriented and prioritized completing fulfillments ahead of schedule. Waste shipments increased from a target number of 184 barrels a year to 230 barrels a year for 2012.  

A secondary reason for the kitty litter explosion were ignorant supervisors. The primary contractor for LANL, Los Alamos National Security, did not properly train their subcontractors. Ialenti was informed of an incident where orange smoke unusually formed at the waste processing center. The supervisors did not halt work. They carelessly continued operating as usual and caused employees to suffer from lung irritation. Interviews with laboratory employees revealed that although the amount of lower-level employees increased, the amount of knowledgeable supervisors did not proportionally increase.

The author admits the Valentine’s Day accident is a complex situation and he had to examine a lot of aspects to provide strong arguments for its cause. There are still some areas of uncertainty about some details of the situation, such as security in the laboratory’s operations.

Ialenti conducted many interviews to provide evidence for his arguments, and to understand the outside influences inside LANL. Ialenti remarks: “To find out the sequence of events that led to this kitty- litter fiasco, one needs to explore the complex tangle of personalities, political contexts, chance events, financial incentives, legal agreements, scientific considerations, chemical reactions, and institutional pressures that converged to break Los Alamos’ waste drum #68,660 that February night” (Ialenti, 263). Ialenti concluded that the incident was due to hands off oversights and speed up waste shipment.

The Valentines Day incident at LANL is similar to the explosion of Chernobyl Reactor 4. Both were caused by malpractice and a severe  miscommunication. The WIPP incident was caused by the mismanagement of nuclear waste, whereas the Chernobyl incident was caused by the mishandling of an experiment designed to test the reactors in case of a massive power failure. The Valentine’s Day incident at LANL was the result of the incorrect cat litter being used inside nuclear waste barrels. Issue resulted when the wheat reacted poorly with other contents of the waste, causing the internal temperature and pressure to increase inside of the barrel. The explosion of Chernobyl Reactor 4 was caused by a similar misunderstanding of the required safety measures. On 25th of April 1986, the reactor was shut down to determine how long its turbines would spin if power to the plant was lost. The explosion occurred because of a miscommunication between the scientists in charge of the experiment, the safety crew, and plant management. Unfortunately, the reactor power output dropped too low to sustain the safety test. An attempt to increase reactor power output generated severe internal instability which led to catastrophic failure. If proper communication and procedures had been met, neither WIPP nor Chernobyl would have experienced a nuclear explosion. Proper communication and complete compliance with safety procedures is of the utmost importance when handling toxic materials..

Some questions to further contemplate the reasons a preventable explosion occured at LANL include:

  1. Is the DOE or contract corporations involved with the DOE, aware that the people hired as subcontractors are civilians with little to no scientific expertise who do not know how to handle nuclear waste?
  2. When the decision to speed up the disposal of nuclear waste was approved, why did the many contract corporations involved not thoroughly ensure the safety of the waste disposal and ignore the required care needed to dispose toxic waste?
  3. Why did the DOE not investigate the Accident Investigation Board’s failure to consider the root cause of the many oversight lapses, corner-cutting actions and regulatory failures?
  4. Did the DOE overlook the increased pace of shipments, knowing it was unusual for LANL to ship so many barrels?


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