The Health Sciences Institute is intended to provide cutting-edge health information.
Nothing on this site should be interpreted as personal medical advice. Always consult with your doctor before changing anything related to your healthcare.

An accident involving nuclear waste was caused by...what?

If you own one or more cats, you know that changing your brand of kitty litter can sometimes be a big mistake.

But it can be a much bigger mistake if it’s being used to dispose of…nuclear waste.

You mean you didn’t know that’s one of the” other” uses of kitty litter? Believe it or not, the same stuff we put in cat boxes is used by scientists to “stabilize” radioactive material left over from the Cold War. The litter is added to drums of the stuff at the Los Alamos National Laboratory before it’s shipped to the country’s only nuclear waste dump, New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.

Talk about a “low-tech” solution!

Only when one of the drums burst on arrival, it was clear someone had goofed — big time.

And it turned out to be whoever decided to change the kind of litter being used — from clay to the “organic” variety.
So, what could be wrong with that? Well, it seems organic litter is actually plant material that contains certain chemical compounds. And those can cause nuclear waste to heat up like a charcoal briquette. As one expert put it, “they’re the wrong thing to add.”

But now there’s an even bigger problem — the more than 500 other drums that contain the same type of kitty litter. Many are already buried, but dozens are still above ground, some at Los Alamos and others in West Texas.

Now New Mexico’s secretary of the environment, Ryan Flynn, is asking why “nobody caught this and raised a red flag.” And how the U.S. Department of Energy, which is the agency in charge, could let such a screw-up happen.

It’s not even clear, he says, what kind of kitty litter was involved.

Although any cat owner could probably have told them that if a certain kind of litter works, you don’t mess with it.


“Organic cat litter chief suspect in nuclear waste accident” Geoff Brumfiel, May 23, 2014, NPR,