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Did highly acidic waste lead to cracked lid at WIPP?

The Department of Energy has added a new focus to its investigation into the source of a radiation leak at a nuclear waste repository: six drums with highly acidic contents.

That’s according to the New Mexico Environment Department, which has been receiving frequent updates on scientists’ testing of the hot chemical reaction that could have occurred inside at least one drum at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, cracking the lid and releasing radiation into the environment.

The six drums now in the spotlight could contain parts of an evaporator used at Los Alamos National Laboratory that may have rendered the drum contents highly acidic. In packing drums, generator sites typically work to neutralize acids or bases before sending the waste to WIPP.

In addition, the six drums also contain an organic cat litter that may have served as the “fuel” for a hot reaction but not the spark, according to Environment Secretary Ryan Flynn, who testified Tuesday before the state Legislature’s radioactive and hazardous waste committee.

DOE scientists are trying to get to the bottom of what happened underground at WIPP but have yet to duplicate the hot reaction.

One of the six drums – the one with the cracked lid – is at WIPP, according to the NMED. The Environment Department late Tuesday said DOE has confirmed that the remaining five are being held at Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas. None of the six is at LANL, contrary to information provided earlier to NMED by DOE.

NMED spokesman Jim Winchester confirmed that the several hundred drums belonging to the full LANL waste stream under investigation are still under state orders to be isolated, secured or otherwise monitored while the investigation continues.

Waste Control Specialists has buried the LANL waste containers to keep them temperature-stable, Winchester said. Before it was discovered that the problem drum at WIPP came from LANL, Waste Control Specialists had agreed to temporarily store LANL waste while WIPP remains closed.

WIPP stopped accepting shipments of nuclear waste in early February, when a truck fire underground unrelated to the radiation leak resulted in the plant shutting down operations.