The fateful explosion that shut down America’s only permanent nuclear-waste storage site happened on Valentine’s Day 2014. The facility, called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant or WIPP, is a series of salt caverns 2,000 feet below the New Mexican desert. Radioactive waste from U.S.’s nuclear weapons comes to WIPP, drum by drum, to be entombed underground.
One such drum ruptured on that February evening. Radioactive material spewed through the caverns, some of it leaking aboveground as well. The original cause turned out to be downright comical: Contractors packing the drum at Los Alamos National Laboratory used the wrong type of cat litter—wheat-based rather than clay—to soak up the liquid radioactive waste, which then reacted with other chemicals inside the drum to explode. Yes, cat litter.
WIPP has been closed for cleanup since the accident, and it’s since blown past one deadline to reopen. The Department of Energy, which operates the plant, is now working to ready WIPP by December 2016.
In anticipation of WIPP resuming operations, the energy department recently filed for a permit to build temporary storage aboveground. The plan would add several concrete vaults to hold the waste drums, designed to be tornado and earthquake proof. More on-site storage would give WIPP a buffer if, for example, the caverns have to ever be temporarily closed for maintenance. But the plan is already drawing criticism from the community. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with having some buffer storage,” says Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nonprofit that works on nuclear issues in New Mexico. “But the management of this waste program has hardly been stellar.”