Expert defends kitty litter theory in WIPP leak

Posted at: 05/13/2014 11:05 PM
By: Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4

It seems years of safety testing and major precautionary steps at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, failed to account for the thing that may have caused a radiation leak – kitty litter.

Dr. Jim Conca, a longtime nuclear expert who monitored WIPP for years, said kitty litter is routinely mixed with nuclear waste to stabilize it for shipment.

“Just regular cat litter,” he said.

He believes the nuclear container or containers that leaked were packed with an organic type of litter, which has a different chemical composition.

Conca believes the company that shipped waste from the Los Alamos National Lab, or LANL, switched from regular litter to organic litter in the last year or two.

The company, EnergySolutions, has not returned calls or e-mails by KOB Eyewitness News 4 or other media outlets.

Conca said he reached his conclusion based on photographs released by the Department of Energy that reveal the leaky nuclear waste drums.  He said evidence of burn marks around the edge of a drum indicate it burst under pressure.  He admitted his theory could be wrong, but said there’s little evidence to disprove it.

“Until we actually get that drum, the one that blew the top off, we really won't know exactly what happened and why,” Conca said.

It’s unclear how long it will take crews at WIPP to safely extract the drum or drums, but Conca said it could take as long as a few weeks or another month.

He defended WIPP and said it’s now unfairly receiving too much bad press in light of his theory.

“Everyone loses sight that WIPP performed brilliantly; it performed exactly as it was supposed to.  And although it's a mess, and we got to clean it up, and everyone's all upset, there's no environmental concern, there's no health concern, there's no safety concern -- WIPP really did well,” Conca said.

He said the radiation that leaked will not be detrimental to those who were exposed.

Conca also explained that the leak would not have been an issue if the drums were stored in a room that had already reached capacity and had been sealed off.  He said WIPP is the final resting place for nuclear waste and that scientists know the drums will leak eventually.  He said it’s not a concern since WIPP is located roughly a half-mile below a nearly impenetrable layer of salt.

“It doesn't matter that the drums are intact after the room is closed.  The drums are assumed to corrode and break and everything else … That's what it's supposed to do,” he said.