Why the Type of Kitty Litter Matters When It Comes To Nuclear Waste Cleanup

In February of 2014, a 55-gallon drum of radioactive waste burst open inside America’s only nuclear dump — the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. It wasn’t long before investigators pointed the finger at a pet store purchase gone wrong. Geochemist James Conca, who has spent decades in the nuclear waste business, blamed the purchase of the wrong kitty litter. It turns out that there’s more to cat litter than you think. While it can soak up urine, it’s also good at absorbing radioactive material. Kitty litter has been used for years to dispose of nuclear waste. Dump it into a drum of sludge and it will stabilize volatile radioactive chemicals. The litter prevents it from reacting with the environment. That’s what contractors at Los Alamos National Laboratory were doing as they packed Cold War-era waste for shipment to the dump. However, at some point, they decided to switch from clay kitty litter to organic kitty litter. That might sound nice, like they were trying to be “green,” but organic kitty litters are organic. They’re made of plant material that's full of chemical compounds that can react with nuclear waste. In fact, they’re actually just fuel, which makes them the absolute wrong thing to add to nuclear waste. Investigators believe the litter and waste caused the drum to slowly heat up, like a slow burn charcoal briquette instead of an actual bomb. After it arrived at the dump, the drum exploded. Scientists at Los Alamos have yet to find the exact blend of kitty litter and nuclear waste that can spark a reaction, but it’s clear that the wrong material went into more than 500 drums. The majority are safely underground in the dump, but dozens are still at Los Alamos and another site in West Texas. None of those drums have burst so far, but the lab has put them in heavy containers for added protection in case they do.