While DOE and WIPP officials have been telling the public that the waste inside WIPP is mostly things like old gloves and radiation suits, they are failing to inform the public and the media of the much different reality going on below ground. WIPP has had the rules that dictate what can be sent there changed repeatedly. At the same time wastes from various national labs have been tweaked to fit into WIPP’s rules. The exploding barrels that caused the latest incident at WIPP are one example. Liquid nitrate salts were immobilized into a solid to be passed off as solid waste. WIPP isn’t permitted to accept liquid wastes. A change in the solidifying agent from vermiculite to a wheat based cat litter is thought to be the root cause of the explosion. This is still part of the ongoing investigation.
Our research team learned early on in the disaster that what is stored inside WIPP is far more than the benign waste DOE likes to tell the public is stored there. WIPP has been for years, used as a final storage site for weapons grade plutonium. Some of that material is stored in the room that had the explosive incident. We have been working on this issue since the February incident and can now confirm that this material is indeed being stored in WIPP as inerted plutonium oxide.
Weapons Grade Plutonium From SRS:
From Arms Control Association:
“In addition, the Energy Department has approved the shipment of up to 0.585 tons of contaminated plutonium to WIPP from the Savannah River Site after converting it into oxide powder, diluting it with a classified “inert” material, and placing it in double-walled containers for a resulting container volume of 1.4 cubic meters per kilogram of plutonium.”
“An an influential 1994 study of plutonium disposition options by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), considerable emphasis was put on the “spent fuel standard.” The idea was that disposition plutonium should be embedded in a waste form that generates a “self-protecting” gamma radiation barrier like that surrounding the plutonium in spent fuel. The waste packages in WIPP do not have such a radiation barrier”
The Union of Concerned Scientists quoted an industry publication that described the process to turn a warhead pit into plutonium oxide as this:
“Plutonium pits are transformed into plutonium oxide powder by roasting them in a way similar to roasting green chili, shown here. (Photo: LANL) “ – “Meeting Nonproliferation Agreements Requires Destroying Thousands of Surplus Plutonium Pits,” National Security Science magazine, November 2012”
The Department of Energy confirms that any “non pit” plutonium at Savannah River is slated to either go into the MOX fuel program (that is now on hold) or into WIPP. Any plutonium not of a grade to be used in MOX fuel is to be turned into an oxide, inerted and sent to WIPP. (A pit is the plutonium used for a nuclear weapon as detailed here)
“The Office of Environmental Management (EM), in coordination with the National Nuclear Security Administration, is responsible for disposition of about 12.8 metric tons (MT) of surplus, non-pit, weapons-usable plutonium-239. The majority of the surplus non-pit plutonium has been consolidated for storage at SRS, pending disposition. DOE’s preferred disposition strategy is to prepare most of the non-pit plutonium as feed for the Department’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX), which is under construction at SRS. The non-pit plutonium that is not suitable for MOX feed would be disposed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).”
With this knowledge that a considerable amount of this inerted weapons grade plutonium has been sent to WIPP we looked at the waste stream and how much of this material is located in panel 7 room 7 where the explosion occurred. WIPP’s online inventory system was used. We found that room 7 alone had 51 containers of inerted weapons grade plutonium stored within the room along with the explosive LANL barrels. The proximity of these barrels to the LANL explosive barrels is a serious concern. This material is much more dangerous than the “barrels of old boots and gloves” as DOE and WIPP frequently try to tell the press is all that is stored in the facility. As of January 2014, 222 of these inerted weapons grade plutonium barrels have been shipped to WIPP.
These barrels of inerted weapons grade plutonium are considered contact handled waste (CH). This means they are in among the pallets of mixed waste in the middle of room 7. They are not placed into the bore holes in the room walls. Those are reserved for higher radiation remote handled waste (RH). We know these barrels of inerted weapons grade plutonium are in the room among all the materials stored in the room. The wrapped and packed barrels of inerted weapons grade plutonium are loaded in the manner seen in this diagram from DOE.
51 Containers Of Interted Weapons Grade Plutonium Are Located In Panel 7 Room 7
These come from Waste Stream SR‐221H‐PuOx described in this DOE document as:
“The plutonium oxide material is being blended and packaged specifically for disposal at WIPP.”
Room 7 HLB Containers Suspected Of Being SRS Plutonium: (database record)
[HBL110111] [HBL110112] [HBL110113] [HBL110114] [HBL110116] [HBL110118] [HBL110119] [HBL110121]
[HBL110123] [HBL110125] [HBL110126] [HBL110127] [HBL110129] [HBL110146] [HBL110154] [HBL110179]
[HBL110180] [HBL110186] [HBL120021] [HBL120026] [HBL120039] [HBL120043] [HBL120051] [HBL120052]
[HBL120056] [HBL120089] [HBL120090] [HBL120091] [HBL120092] [HBL120093] [HBL120094] [HBL120096]
[HBL120097] [HBL120101] [HBL120106] [HBL120110] [HBL120121] [HBL120139] [HBL120141] [HBL120146]
[HBL120166] [HBL120182] [HBL120189] [HBL120198] [HBL120199] [HBL120213] [HBL120215] [HBL120217]
[HBL120229] [HBL120233] [HBL120239]
Containers That Match The Waste Stream: (database record of waste stream SR-221H-PuOx)
HBL110111 HBL110112 HBL110113 HBL110114 HBL110116 HBL110118 HBL110119 HBL110121 HBL110123 HBL110125 HBL110126
HBL110127 HBL110129 HBL110146 HBL110154 HBL110179 HBL110180 HBL110186 HBL120021 HBL120026 HBL120039
HBL120043 HBL120051 HBL120052 HBL120056 HBL120089 HBL120090 HBL120091 HBL120092 HBL120093 HBL120094
HBL120096 HBL120097 HBL120101 HBL120106 HBL120110 HBL120121 HBL120139 HBL120141 HBL120146 HBL120166
HBL120182 HBL120189 HBL120198 HBL120199 HBL120213 HBL120215 HBL120217 HBL120229 HBL120233 HBL120239
What Is It Inerted With?
Arms Control explained it as a classified material. Some DOE documents describe it as an “inerting material”. DOE has also called it “Stardust”. We have tried to trace what the mystery substance really is.
In some related literature on plutonium handling we found references to inerting materials for plutonium oxide. Diatomaceous earth has been used in the past as a material that will absorb and hold plutonium. This IAEA paper discusses using diatomaceous earth as an inerting material for plutonium oxide in reference to materials at Los Alamos.
This Los Alamos document does describe diatomaceous earth as an inerting agent for plutonium oxides, used for other purposes.
“The majority of the standards fabricated contained plutonium or uranium in the form of powdered oxides (PuO2 or U308), and in these cases the oxide was thoroughly characterized by analytical chemistry before being homogeneously blended with diatomaceous earth (an inert matrix material)”
So why would we then make the connection that the classified secret inerting ingredient called “stardust” might be diatomaceous earth?
The product shown to the left is a brand name absorbent called Stardust made out of diatomaceous earth. The product details for Stardust brand absorbent labels the material as diatomaceous earth. It may really be that simple that a commonly used inerting ingredient already used in the national labs system for handling plutonium oxides is what is used. Why someone would have decided to use a brand name then declare it classified seems pretty silly but they were able to get much of the press to play along without asking questions in the past.
The recent incident at WIPP was a near miss. Had the explosion been of a much larger magnitude it could have damaged these inerted weapons grade plutonium barrels making a sort of dirty bomb. Right now it is unclear if any of these barrels have been damaged in room 7. How DOE will eventually deal with the remaining unstable barrels from Los Alamos in room 7 and these barrels of inerted weapons grade plutonium will be a considerable challenge. There may be more rooms with this same combination of potentially explosive Los Alamos barrels and inerted weapons grade plutonium barrels in close proximity to each other. DOE needs to promptly and clearly address how they will resolve the problem. If sealing the rooms up is their solution they need to clearly document to the public what analysis has been done on the waste in those rooms to assure that there won’t be additional unintended consequences.
This article would not be possible without the extensive efforts of the SimplyInfo research team
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