The leak heard ‘round the nuclear industry

A radioactive leak in New Mexico will make solutions to our waste problem even more elusive.

  • WIPP waste stacks in Room 7 with burst magnesium oxide bags on top, center, and in their usual neat stacks, to the left.


Until this Feb. 5, when fire erupted from a truck 2,100 feet below ground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico, the country's only permanent nuclear waste repository had a perfect 15-year-long safety record. It's hard to overstate how much this mattered: The deep salt-bed mine, called always by its acronym, only handles debris from nuclear bomb-making. Yet nuclear power proponents have long drawn optimism from WIPP's success. If a repository could succeed for nuclear-defense waste – a category less hot than spent reactor fuel – could we then find a place to inter the accumulating detritus of nuclear reactors? If WIPP could demonstrate safe geologic disposal, might other communities with the appropriate geology also welcome nuclear waste into their backyards?

Nuclear power could then make its comeback as a climate-friendly alternative to coal. That long hoped-for renaissance stalled out as more spent fuel rods crowded into inadequate pools at reactor sites – pools, as we saw at Fukushima Daiichi in 2011, that could burst into flames. WIPP offered hope, evidence, a living laboratory: Let 1,000 reactors bloom.

Had WIPP's problems ended with the truck fire, that vision might have had a chance. But nine days later, on Valentine's Day, alarms sounded above an air monitor, warning that radioactive particles were escaping from the mine. Workers quickly closed vents, redirecting air flow through particle-stripping filters. Still, alpha radiation from americium and plutonium, the fingerprint of nuclear-weapons waste, was detected a half-mile away.

No one thinks the truck fire triggered the radiation leak, but nearly four months later, no one knows for sure what actually did. There have been theories. "Theory after theory," New Mexico Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn complained at a Carlsbad town hall on May 8. One involved naturally occurring radon gas pressuring particles out of the mine; another suggested a fallen ceiling bolt had punctured a drum. "We need to be very careful what information we put out," Flynn said, at the same time chiding WIPP Recovery Manager Jim Blankenhorn, a U.S. Energy Department contractor, for his lack of transparency. "Evolving theories undermine confidence."

Blankenhorn maintained his reserve, and the next week described how workers dressed in protective gear and outfitted with extendable cameras had gathered clues: Images showing a container drum whose contents seem to have burst forth and frozen, like calcified curdled milk.  Bags of magnesium oxide, placed atop the drums to shield radiation, have spilled open. Dark stains on the drum suggest some sort of  "heat-producing event" occurred in nitrate salts contained in the drum. The damaged drum has been traced back to Los Alamos National Laboratories, one of several facilities that send Cold War-era defense waste to WIPP.

What caused the container to heat up? Investigators have a theory about that, too: Someone at Los Alamos packed the nitrate salts with the wrong kind of kitty litter, like Swheat Scoop instead of Jonny Cat.

No, really.

"In the '90s, when I was at Los Alamos, we actually did use Jonny Cat," says James Conca, an expert on nuclear waste disposal. "It has very nice chemical composition." Kitty litter absorbs any liquid that could usher radioactive material out of its container. But the wrong kind of kitty litter – a plant-based material as opposed to Jonny Cat's mineral clay – might have interacted with oxidizing nitrate salts and heated up, like "a slow-burning charcoal briquette," Conca says.

The Energy Department insists that the radiation release wasn't enough to imperil the public and had only minimal impact on workers. That's hardly reassuring: WIPP wasn't supposed to leak at all. Now that it has, it takes effort to believe that the next one won't be worse.

Nor does the accident at WIPP bode well for waste disposal from commercial nuclear power reactors, a problem so stymied by politics that the Obama administration recently stopped collecting disposal fees from utilities. The last attempt to develop a U.S. repository, at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, united all factions in opposition, not least because Yucca Mountain has a history of volcanism. WIPP, by contrast, has been dug into a 250-million-year-old salt bed laid down by the evaporation of the Permian Sea. "Salt is molecularly tight," Conca says. "It takes water a billion years to move an inch through salt." Yet the facility remains closed indefinitely. Some waste has been redirected to temporary storage in West Texas; more languishes on the surface where it originated.

Don Hancock of the nonprofit Southwest Research and Information Center in Carlsbad thinks the waste awaiting storage should stay where it is. WIPP, he says, "was a flawed site long before the February events. It's surrounded by more than 100 oil and gas wells." Others argue that closing WIPP would be a mistake, especially now.

"Everyone should be grateful that this waste drum vented after it was emplaced into WIPP," Per Peterson, a nuclear engineering professor at University of California, Berkeley, wrote in an email. "The worst thing that could result would be to leave remaining waste in limbo above ground, risking similar events." Peterson recommends clustering all suspect drums into WIPP's compromised sections and sealing them off forever. The salt bed will then isolate the radioactive waste, just as it did ancient bacteria, which have been found in the salt formation perfectly intact, DNA and all, after a quarter of a billion years.

But first, officials have to know what happened. Attempts to reproduce the organic kitty litter-nitrate salt reaction have failed, and new theories continue to emerge. Only one thing's sure: The promise of geologic disposal of nuclear waste has been dealt a huge blow. And the dimming hope of a nuclear waste solution won't brighten until WIPP's problems are fully understood – and maybe not even then.

Jerry Nolan
Jerry Nolan Subscriber
Jun 09, 2014 05:12 PM
The headline blares: “The leak heard ‘round the nuclear industry”
“A radioactive leak in New Mexico will make solutions to our waste problem even more elusive.”
The article tells us that the repository's 15 year perfect safety record is now ruined by a radiation leak that the DOE says is harmless. “It's hard to overstate how much this mattered” pants the author. The article concedes the leak was harmless but “Now that it has, it takes effort to believe that the next one won't be worse.” Well, in fact it could be a lot worse and still be harmless. And given the record of one small leak in 15 years, I say we shouldn't lose any sleep over it. What we should lose sleep over is global warming and the folks who fight to prevent science from developing the only clean energy source capable of providing the world's electricity.
Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 02:24 PM
Thanks for your comment Jerry, but you didn't read that right. "It's hard to overstate how much that mattered" refers to WIPP's safety record. That's just fundamentally true. Every nuclear waste expert, geologist, nuclear-energy proponent I've talked to in the last decade championed WIPP as a possible solution to our nuclear-waste problems. It has long mattered enormously to the nuclear industry that WIPP exists.

Judith Lewis Mernit
HCN Contributing Editor
Jerry King
Jerry King Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 03:08 PM
The nuclear industry has contributed greatly to its bad PR by providing unqualified assurances of safety of its facilities. It's understandable because the industry knows that people just want to be assured that nuclear facilities are safe. The reality is that nuclear operations are hazardous, complex, and always subject to human errors. The most that can really be said is that the risk not zero but it is low and we are constantly working to make it even lower. Having said that, this incident says nothing about the goodness of the WIPP site as a repository. Rather, it speaks to the standards of quality assurance being applied to the waste that is being emplaced there. Those problems can be fixed. But no one should ever believe that the risk posed by WIPP operations, or the risk posed by any other industrial activity that involves hazardous materials, can be reduced to zero. Nevertheless, the risk posed by just leaving waste where it is unquestionably greater than the risk of disposing it deep underground. WIPP has to be reopened and a repository for high-level waste has to be developed somewhere because the alternatives are nuts.
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 05:37 PM
The problem of what to do with nuclear waste must be solved. Desecrating the landscape with hideous windmills and acres and acres of solar panels is a colossal waste of time and money. Solve the problem of what to do with the waste and the energy problem goes away. What good is cheap clean energy if this country marred forever from coast to coast with windmills, solar farms and the already ubiquous oil and gas mess. Solve the problem of nuclear waste and restore the vista and landscapes of the country.
Jerry Nolan
Jerry Nolan Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 07:22 PM
Nuclear waste is not a technical problem, it is a political problem. The U.S. could recycle its waste, but it makes more sense to store it and use it as fuel in 4th generation reactors. Yucca Mountain is an example of a technical solution being blocked by political problems. Current on site storage will suffice until the next generation of reactors come online. The next generation of reactors will burn nuclear waste from the old reactors.
David E Roy PHD
David E Roy PHD
Jun 10, 2014 07:40 PM
Our species -- Homo sapiens sapiens (we are 2x wise) -- has a well-demonstrated and virtually unstoppable penchant for "knowing" we are the most amazing creatures on this planet (at least). We tend to vastly overestimate our abilities and resist most efforts to subordinate major-scale decisions to a more realistic, limited perspective. There is unlimited hubris in any consideration of storing high intensity radioactive material for periods of time that approach a geological time period. Even if low level radioactive material could be stored without incident, there is zero possibility of safe storage of the high intensity radioactive materials for periods that exceed all known civilizations. And there has been an incident, and there will be more, despite our tendency to believe anything like this can be accomplished. Poet Percy Shelley captured the spirit of our human escape into grandiosity quite well in his poem, "Ozymandias." Some limits are real. Pursuing solutions to our energy needs that are impossible is expensive, disheartening, dangerous, and gets in the way of pursuing other solutions.
Stephen Willis
Stephen Willis Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 07:55 PM
Nuclear waste is both, a technical problem and a political problem. Atomic waste and a generation of aging, obsolete power plants comprise national security risks that far outweigh any benefits. We are one "accident" away from the end of the "4th generation" nuclear fantasy. Nuclear power is not carbon neutral. It is part of the problem.
Jerry Nolan
Jerry Nolan Subscriber
Jun 10, 2014 08:42 PM
Stephen, we already had that accident that put an end to nuclear development in the U.S. I'm referring to Three Mile Island. Nuclear development in the U.S. stopped for about 30 years. Since then we discovered global warming and there are serious people who want to do something about it. The safety record of our aging fleet of reactors and the number of lives they have saved from fossil fuels that weren't burned is awesome. Dr. James Hansen estimates that 1.8 million lives may have been saved.* There is huge government support for development of Gen IV reactors in China, India, Russia, and France. In the U.S. private parties are working on the development of Gen IV reactors. U.S. government support is next to nothing. We might be buying our Gen IV reactors from China. Gen 3+ reactors are under construction throughout the world, including five in the U.S.
Larry Darnell
Larry Darnell Subscriber
Jun 11, 2014 06:29 PM
What could be more ironic? Or the plot of a 60's monstrosity radiation thriller: An industry, self-characterized as clean, has it's 'waste' neutralized by kitty litter, but when the 'name brand' product isn't used, it causes the unexpected tragedy: your wastes' toxicity becomes out of 'control,' that which was always discounted as a non issue. Well, it is an issue with aspects of cat excrement but requiring New and Improved Nuke Litter, capable of cleaning up hot liquid and solid nuclear waste as well as 'spent' uranium armaments and industry pr spinners' catbox rhetoric.
Jerry Nolan
Jerry Nolan Subscriber
Jun 12, 2014 10:50 AM
Judith, I appreciated your going to Per Peterson for expert opinion. Too many journalists go to the Union of Concerned Scientists which is like going to a white supremacist group for expertise on civil rights. There is a presentation by Per Peterson given in February 2014 in which he discusses the problems of nuclear waste and other issues that you have written about. Peterson gives a very informative presentation.
You can view it at:
During the question answer period the first question is about a Gen IV reactor that burns nuclear waste. Dr. Peterson is unable to give the details, but I can. The question refers to Lesley Dewan and Mark Massie who were Phd students at MIT in 2011. They designed a molten salt reactor called the WAMSR (Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor) and started a company called Trans Atomic Power. Theirs is one of six different companies designing variations of molten salt reactors. The design competition for Gen IV reactors is exciting and promising, especially when you add NuScale's PWR SMR entry, and Per Peterson's favored pebble bed design.
Michael Beaty
Michael Beaty
Jun 12, 2014 02:04 PM
The notion that 'solving the waste problem' clears the way for a so called nuclear renaissance ignores the toxic legacy of the entire fuel production process, from mining to enrichment. The maladies suffered by the Navajo are a case in point. As we also reckon with the adverse impacts of hyped Green Technologies, e.g. wind farms and solar facilities,Amory Louvins' advocacy of conservation makes increasing sense. As with Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island, the WIPP incident underscores the need for downsizing our civilization's energy consumption; an anathema that now needs saying more than ever.
Jerry Nolan
Jerry Nolan Subscriber
Jun 12, 2014 10:16 PM
Conservation? Did you suggest this to this impoverished billions who have only minimal electricity, or no electricity? Did you know that lack of electricity correlates with large families and overpopulation? Nations that have plentiful electricity have the lowest birthrates because women have more choices. Conservation is nice for rich countries. Conservation is one of those feel good about yourself ideas that excuse people from finding real solutions to global warming. I feel good about my own carbon footprint because I don't need to travel much. Maybe I'm just jealous of jet setters, some of whom claim to be environmentalists, but I don't think so. Jet travel is one of the biggest contributors to global warming because it injects green house gases directly into the stratosphere. Why not replace some of those jet flights with electric high speed rail where the electricity comes from clean nuclear power? France's high speed electric rail system is powered by nuclear energy. That's cool. (France gets 80% of its electricity from clean nuclear energy and they don't have a waste problem.)
Kyle Klain
Kyle Klain Subscriber
Jun 13, 2014 09:06 AM
WIPP, by design, is quite clever. With Iron and the salt layers, it naturally plates out any sort of plutonium or americium, which means in case of collapse (actually that's part of the design) it is a self-sealed solution. How an Oil or Gas industry well could somehow tamper would be mind boggling as there is a substantial zone of zero tolerance around the facility.

That being said, because it's a salt bed, the natural occurring radiation at the surface is well below average, so it was easy to detect. Was it even remotely close to 'tragic'? Not even--it was the same level we experience in ABQ and Santa Fe on a daily basis as the rockies decompose under us.

Can we start a recycling system like they use in France please?