What happened, in the years leading up to Valentine’s Day 2014, that made a canister of nuclear waste burst open and spew out fire underground at a US facility for the long-term disposal of radioactive military waste? According to one widely publicized scenario, a simple run-of-the-mill typo led to organic kitty litter mistakenly being used to soak up liquid in the drum instead of another kind of absorbent material. This ultimately led to a chemical chain reaction that made heat and pressure build up in the drum, causing it to erupt. But was that “simple” clerical error symptomatic of a much deeper, system-wide problem – involving a US Energy Department plan to rush the pace of nuclear waste disposal? What were the political, social, and financial elements involved in making Los Alamos’ waste drum #68,660 erupt that February night? What can be done to prevent similar accidents – which can have price tags of hundreds of millions of dollars or more – from happening again in the future? A cultural anthropologist spent 10 weeks onsite after the event, logging 43 interviews and trying to answer these questions. Here is what he found.
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