Lessons from Radioactive Kitty Litter

In February, a 55-gallon drum of radioactive waste burst at a storage facility in New Mexico. The investigation has pinned it on a surprising culprit: Kitty litter.

It turns out that the clay is perfect for stabilizing volatile compounds, so they use it when storing radioactive waste. But somewhere along the line, someone switched to organic kitty litter, which was plant-based…and chemicals in the litter reacted with the chemicals being stored, causing it to heat up and expand.

The off-the-wall nature of the story appeals to me, but it also nicely illustrates several points:

  1. Just because something has a scary industrial use, that doesn’t make it harmful for more mundane uses, like lining the cat box. (See also: cleaning with baking soda and vinegar.)
  2. Everything has chemicals in it, even totally green organic products. That’s what complex materials are made of!
  3. Organic/natural is not always better. It depends on what you’re using it for. (Though to be fair, clay is natural too.)
  4. Swapping out ingredients might be fine sometimes, but not always. Write clear specs if you’re designing, and follow them if you’re building/procuring. (See also: Substituting a common allergen for a rare one, and “I chose X because of Y.”)
  5. We still don’t have a real solution for disposing of radioactive waste, only storing it.

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