Were you aware that kitty litter has a secret unadvertised agenda all its own? Besides the mundane and not so pleasant task of absorbing the odors of cat urine, kitty litter has also long been used for industrial purposes. Don’t discuss this with your cat.
According to a 277-page report released by the Department of Energy (DOE), the culprit responsible for a radioactive leak that occurred last February at America’s only nuclear dump, the underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), located about a half-mile underground in geologically stable salt deposits east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, was a 55-gallon drum packed with the wrong kind of cat litter.
James Conca, a geochemist in Richland, Washington, who has spent decades in the nuclear waste business, reported in Forbes Magazine that traditional cat litter contains inorganic silicates that stabilize the volatile salts found in nuclear waste. In his own words: “Litter actually works well both in the home litter box as well as the radiochemistry laboratory. Nitrate salt solutions can ignite when they dry out. You need to stabilize them before that happens…”
Cat litter is often used to absorb liquids when storing nuclear waste. It is possible that the incident occurred because of a simple typo in the Los Alamos policy manual, which stated to ensure “an organic absorbent (kitty litter) was added to the waste when preparing drums of nitrate salt.” When the drum was packed at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, the litter used was Swheat Scoop. This organic litter composed primarily of wheat created a chemical reaction that caused the gasses inside the drum to build up and the lid to burst open.
The cost of damages for the nuclear waste leak is estimated at $240 million and the state of New Mexico has issued $54 million in fines to the Energy Department, the contractors running the nuclear dump and the Los Alamos lab for allowing the leak to happen. Ultimately, 21 people were exposed to low-level radioactivity although no one was seriously hurt. The US Energy Department has estimated that WIPP, which has been closed since the incident, will require about two years and more than a half-billion dollars to maintain key operations again. It is possible that other drums at the facility also contain the wrong kitty litter), a reality that cannot be ignored. Try not to discuss this with your felines and the next time you see a bag of kitty litter, remember to speak nicely and tread softly.