Politics, hazard and geology: A blast from the past at a place that saw blasts….

How do we make technical decisions as a society? Very poorly, which saddens the Grumpy Geophysicist. Join GG in the way-back machine to revisit one of those strange moments when geology and public policy came together to make a lot of people spend a lot of time producing nothing (when, in fact, a lot of something was needed). As we shall see, there are oodles of blame and silliness to go around.
It has been noted for a long time that we need a secure place for nuclear waste. It is kind of dangerous stuff, and you don’t want to be finding it in your dumpster or in the air or, well, anywhere you want to be. So long ago Congress decided to tax nuclear power in order to pay to find a place to put the waste.
Fine so far, good idea. But what to do? Well, of course, we call it waste and so we should dump it, no? This means putting it somewhere out of sight and out of mind. Let’s pause for a moment to consider that this waste represents a bunch of heavy elements that are really really rare and occasionally have other uses than making power or blowing things up and so just sweeping this under the rug may not be the best long term solution.
Enjoyed the pause? Ok, back to reality. Being waste, you need to put it somewhere really safe, preferably bury it somewhere. Being Congress, they heard this stuff could be hazardous for a long time, so they mandated that material could not somehow escape for 10,000 years (technically they mandated that the National Academy of Science determine if this was possible).

Frankly it is hard to imagine a geologist coming up with such a plan; this feels like a plan made by a physicist (you know, the same guys who envisioned using nuclear bombs for big construction projects—check out Operation Plowshare). The outer parts of the earth are so dynamic in so many different ways that keeping something like nuclear waste fixed in place for 10,000 years was just begging to be shown to be impossible. The basic problem is that you want no water and you want no tectonic activity and you want nothing people are apt to dig or drill towards. Good luck with that in the U.S. Of course what happened was that the place with the very fewest people was chosen as the ideal site. While there were scientific reasons why Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada could be a plausible site, there were plenty of reasons why it wasn’t great (and arguably it wasn’t even the best site within the county!).
You might think that the scientific objections might have killed this project: earthquake hazards, groundwater moving far more rapidly than anticipated, possible radical changes in groundwater tables, possible oil and gas targets near the site, etc. You would be wrong. They were just window dressing for the undying opposition of Nevada’s legislators that eventually took its toll.
Here is where irony becomes evident because that deep-seated opposition was based on the most transparently irrational logic imaginable. At the height of the scientific studies of the site, the final subterranean nuclear tests were being conducted at the Nevada Test Site nearby. Nevada’s representatives in Congress simultaneously advocated continuing testing and preventing the repository from being made. The arguments against the repository were that it might leak and contaminate surroundings and that nuclear waste would travel through Las Vegas, putting the public at risk. But at the same time underground testing was directly injecting radioactive materials into the surrounding rock (and making big fractures while doing it) and the weapons used were passing through Las Vegas! There is no way to make this logic consistent: a nuclear bomb could destroy Vegas, while a nuclear waste accident (for which specially designed railcars were tested) would be less severe. Arguing that exploding nuclear materials underground was somehow less likely to pollute groundwater than actually placing radioactive waste in engineered containers designed to prevent leakage is, well, insane.
Of course you all know why they did what they did, and it illustrates perfectly the flaws in our system of making technical decisions. There were jobs to be lost if testing ended, and as no nuclear weapon had yet fallen off a truck and gone blooey, it must be safe and of no concern. But any new repository jobs were still hypothetical—those future job holders were not writing Congressman to save their future job. And since we hadn’t ever transported high-level nuclear waste around the country, it was clearly scary, just like your first day in school.
You know, for a state that relies on exploitation of people’s inability to understand risks and rewards, you might have expected something better of their representatives. Of course the whole process was FUBAR: the original specifications are effectively impossible: there is no way to prove that a given site won’t leak over 10,000 years. There may be a number of sites likely not to leak, but that was not the standard imposed. This process and standard was advocated by some as a means of crippling a nuclear industry that couldn’t be stopped by more direct objections, but it led to this massive snark hunt for a place that could meet such impossible criteria, wasting years of many professionals’ lives. And then, with all this work done, it was really just raw political power that killed the repository (assuming it really is killed). And so today, those who successfully put in this waste disposal criterion are happy as it did the work they desired: it killed the nuclear power industry. And the state that would have hosted the waste is happy that it isn’t coming their way.
The amazing thing is that the millions of people now living near aging holding pools with the potential in dozens of parts of the country to be attacked, hit by an airplane, or just flat out fail from negligence or incompetence, are not screaming at their Congresspeople to find a solution. Of course, none of those holding tanks have failed or been attacked.
Yet.
Just ask the Japanese what the years of successful nuclear power operation meant for their safety in the Tohoku earthquake.
Is nuclear waste safer in those holding ponds than in Yucca Mountain? No. Is Yucca Mountain a safe repository for millennia to come? No. What is the lowest risk to the greatest number? Isn’t that the question that should be asked? For there is no no-risk solution at this point. A truly technically capable society would ask that question and be able to balance risks intelligently. Too bad that is not the society we inhabit; our decisions are made on tug-of-wars between ill-informed constituencies that have risk perceptions out of line with real risks (in both directions). And so GG remains deeply grumpy…

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