A nuclear waste explosion that exposed 21 federal workers to radiation was caused by a mix-up in kitty litter brands, according to an official report released late Thursday.
The February 2014 incident at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico was one of the highest-profile nuclear contamination releases in recent history and created serious headaches for the Department of Energy (DOE), especially as it is trying to prove that the federal government can successfully manage nuclear waste.
Scientists frequently use cat litter to absorb nuclear waste in laboratories. But this particular drum contained Swheat Scoop, a brand marketed as “natural” that hadn’t been used before in a nuclear lab.
The ingredients in the litter reacted with the nuclear waste to create gases that increased the pressure in the drum and made it explode.
“The contents of Drum 68660 were incompatible,” according to a summary of the final report.
“Drum 68660 breached as a result of internal chemical reactions. Experiments showed that various combinations of nitrate salt, Swheat Scoop, nitric acid, and oxalate self-heat at temperatures below 100°C,” it continued.
The process took about 70 days from the mixture of the ingredients to the explosion at the nuclear waste site, the DOE said.