The Department of Energy has released a report into its investigation into the minor radiation accident at the WIPP site near Carlsbad, NM last year. As had been suspected, the cause of the accident was the use of an improper packing/absorbing material in a waste container. While the people preparing the waste were supposed to use some sort of clay material (basically inorganic cat litter), they instead used an organic cat litter. While these two things might seem functionally similar for most uses, that was not the case. Material reacted with the organic cat litter, eventually causing a breach in the container that led to the accident.
A Sante Fe paper has a longer update on the investigation into what led to the radiation release at WIPP. As had been reported earlier, it appears that the problems likely stemmed from Los Alamos personnel using organic cat litter as an absorbent in some barrels of waste. Organic material is much more reactive than the inorganic absorbents (such as clay-based cat litter) that they were supposed to use.
However, this was not the only problem, and it took a appalling series of mistakes by LANL workers to cause this to happen. The usage of organic absorbent was likely due to a typo in an updated LANL procedure, while LANL reported to WIPP that the contents of the barrel were nonreactive when in fact the mixture was highly reactive and potentially even explosive. Los Alamos should not have shipped the barrel at all and had WIPP personnel known the true contents of the barrel it would not have been accepted. Even after the accident, LANL reportedly did not inform WIPP of all the relevant facts of the case. State inspectors had not been allowed access to the LANL cleanup operation for several years, so there was also reduced outside oversight that could have contributed to what now seems like a lax safety culture at the lab.
The article claims that the problems at LANL may stem from a rush to finish cleanup in order to claim some funding tied to a meeting a deadline a few months after the accident ended up happening. Los Alamos has had a number of embarrassing problems over the years, so this just seems to be another one. One would expect that if all this really is true, the DoE will make some major changes to LANL leadership or at least the contractors running waste cleanup.
On Thursday, the EXO-200 experiment released a preprint on a search for exotic double beta decay modes involving no neutrinos but with emission of one or more “Majorons,” which are bosons related to the violation of lepton number required by these decay modes.
EXO-200 is an experiment at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, NM. It consists of a time projection chamber (TPC) using highly enriched liquid xenon as the target material. The xenon is enriched with a higher fraction of a particular isotope that is expected to undergo double beta decay – which happens when regular beta decay is disallowed due to energy constraints but double beta decay, where two electrons (or positrons) are emitted at once is allowed. The main goal of EXO is to search for neutrinoless double beta decay, where the two neutrinos created along with the two electrons basically cancel one another. The existence of neutrinoless double beta decay requires that neutrinos be Majorana fermions, where they are their own antiparticles, instead of Dirac fermions like all the other known fermions. This paper looks at more complicated decay mode than the standard one of just two electrons and a nucleus in the final state.
The paper sets lower limits on the lifetime of xenon-136 using different models of neutrinoless double beta decays with Majorons in the final state. It also sets equivalent upper limits on the Majoron-electron coupling for some of these models.