Monday, May 26, 2014

Clay Litter: bad for Kitties, Good for Nuclear Waste.

Burst container at the Waste Isolation
Pilot Plant, Carlsbad, NM
photo courtesy U.S. DOE
On Valentine's Day, a U.S. Department of Energy location in New Mexico had what's known as a 'radionuclide release event.'

In other words, a canister of radioactive waste burst.

Why? Kitty litter.

You see, what's bad for kitties is good for radioactive waste.  Old-fashioned clay litter, made from bentonite clay, is considered to be biologically inert. And it can absorb many, many times its mass.

So, while it makes a not-so-good repository for kitty waste (read why we don't recommend it here), it makes a great insulator for radioactive waste.

And it's been used for years to do exactly that: insulate canisters filled with waste like the one pictured at left.

But in 2013, someone decided to "go green" and use a biodegradable corn or wheat litter to pack around that stuff, instead.

Oops. Can you say "hot mess"?

You do know why corn litter is called biodegradable, don't you? Because it's not inert. It actually breaks down into compost.
And we suspect that may be what occurred here.

Compost can easily reach temperatures over a hundred degrees,
as you can see here. Photo: Scot Nelson

Anyone who has ever composted knows that heat is generated through the process.
Cornell University has a good explanation of it in their composting physics article:

"Compost heat is produced as a by-product of the microbial breakdown of organic material. The heat production depends on the size of the pile, its moisture content, aeration, and carbon/nitrogen ratio." (carbon stuff is usually brown, like dry leaves, whereas nitrogen stuff is green, like grass clippings)

So what happens when corn litter is packed in a barrel of radioactive waste containing nitrate salts?

Heat damage. Photo courtesy U.S. DOE.

So the moral of this story is that it's not always a good idea to go green.

And here's a budget-saving tip for the DOE: clay litter's a bit cheaper than corn, too.  ;-)

On May 20, the State of New Mexico's Environment Department issued the following statement from MNED Secretary Ryan Flynn:

"Based on the May 15th visual inspection, the Department of Energy (DOE) has indicated that the radiological release in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) underground did, in fact, originate from one of two transuranic (TRU) mixed waste containers. The containers in question contain nitrate salts, which DOE postulated may have been the source of the release.

As soon as DOE suspected that a container with nitrate salt mixed with organic kitty litter may have been the source of the release, the Environment Department required DOE to take immediate action to isolate and secure all nitrate salt bearing waste containers at WIPP, LANL and WCS.

Following the receipt of the most recent evidence from DOE, NMED issued an Administrative Order to DOE / Los Alamos National Security (LANS) yesterday to ensure implementation and documentation of all protective measures being taken to secure nitrate salt-bearing waste containers at LANL.

NMED issued this second order today to WIPP to ensure that DOE / NWP submits an action plan to sufficiently secure nitrate salt-bearing waste containers by expediting the closure of portions of the WIPP underground including Panel 6, which contains 313 nitrate salt-bearing waste containers and Panel 7, Room 7 which contains 55 nitrate salt-bearing waste containers."

New Mexico Environmental Department Order to U.S. DOE 
New Mexico Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Issues Document
Cornell University Compost Physics

WIPP Recovery Photos
Compost Temperatures 


  1. Ashton: I could have told those radioactive people that using the wrong kitty litter could lead to a toxic situation. I have to share litterboxes with with two mancats, and I would hate for the wrong litter to be used for them, too.

  2. Wow, this was an interesting and somewhat entertaining post all in one. I have to share.

  3. Wrong type of litter LOL and not always good to go green! Well I never. Have a great Memorial Day and a marvellous Monday.
    Best wishes Molly

  4. Wow....we didn't know that!!! ...we can't help but giggle at Sometimes Cats Herd You's comment!!! haha!

  5. I still uses clay...clumping...Mom sez I has litter box anxiety (I cries sometimes,been doing dat since a baby and repeatedly tested and nothing wrong medically.). So she worries about trying someting new, so we verrry interested in all your litter posts. Scary about da nuclear waste info...tho mom kinda laffed out loud and muttered someting about MY nuclear waste.(?) Tank yoo for da info!

  6. That is wacky and scary rolled into a big mess. I'm leaving smarter, so thanks! : )

  7. Very interesting facts and I had no idea. Sometimes tried and true is better.

  8. I saw that item in the news and love how you explained the issue here. Dumb humans - can't even tell the difference between inert and biodegradable. Ha!

  9. Yes wees don't like or use da clay eevew. Wees use da SwheatScoop. Is much bettew fuw kittys.

    Luv and Hugs and Kitty Kisses ♥♥♥


  10. Hi guys! We are just now getting caught up on posts since our Mama recently came home from her travels. We wanted to tell you that our Mama loved meeting your mama. Your Mama is sweet and special!

    the critters in the cottage xo

  11. Whoops. Shoulda thought THAT one out a little more...

  12. To answer your question on my blog, the header font is Oregano - I found it at Google Fonts.

  13. Whoa! We didn't know that kitty litter was used to absorb nuclear waste! Does that mean our excrements are considered nuclear waste?!? Mom sure thinks so sometimes…

  14. Well why am I not surprised ??!!
    Stoopid humans 'sigh´s*



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