Geotimes

From the Editor

Despite decades of public debate, searching for disposal sites and engineering waste containment systems, we can’t seem to dispose of the nagging nuclear waste dilemma in the United States.
 
In 2000, the National Research Council released a report, Disposition of High-Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel: The Continuing Societal and Technical Challenges, which concluded that, “No national program has yet been successful in siting a geological repository and emplacing HLW [high-level waste] in it.” Their conclusion came after the United States had spent more than 50 years producing nuclear wastes. The NRC report goes on to present insightful recommendations that balance our dual technological and social challenges in choosing a plan for managing these nuclear wastes.
 
This January, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham advised Nevada officials that he intended to recommend to President Bush that the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, “is scientifically sound and suitable for development as the nation’s long-term geological repository for nuclear waste.” In this statement we see the inevitable convergence of societal challenges and scientific and technical considerations. Such is the nature of most earth science issues, but particularly the managing of our nuclear legacy.
 
No matter how good our science and our technology, irreducible scientific and technical uncertainties ultimately drive the discussion and major decisions toward matters of values. In the case of nuclear waste disposal, values involve choosing the level of risk we are willing to assume in a storage scenario, and selecting the lands we are willing to commit to the mission.
 
This month’s Geotimes travels for a distance with the three horsemen — science, technology and values — through the maze of nuclear wastes.
 
The Comment this month is by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who outlines why he thinks scientific studies of Yucca Mountain still aren’t ready to support Secretary Abraham’s decision that the site is appropriate for the storage of nuclear waste.
 
In our first feature, Department of Energy scientists outline the scientific and technological work done to date on Yucca Mountain. The natural and engineered features are expected to work together to “isolate the wastes from the public and the environment for more than the 10,000 years required by law.”  But they add that, “because some level of uncertainty will always exist,” testing and monitoring of the site should continue even after the repository is closed.
 
On a scientifically and socially humbling note, John Eichelberger and coauthors discuss the potential significance of the three underground nuclear tests conducted at Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Volcanic Arc from 1965 to 1971. The site was chosen before earth scientists fully understood just how active a geologic environment it is. As the authors aptly state, “Truth is as elusive to science as justice is to government. … Nevertheless, the site was selected and used and the contamination cannot be removed. The price of nuclear contamination is eternal vigilance.”
 
Finally, author Susan Mockler offers us an overview of the complex issues surrounding not only our nuclear legacy, but also our legacy of other hazardous wastes. And to give readers a historical perspective, we also offer a photo spread that documents the past and present of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site.
 
Though I risk oversimplification by saying it, I will: these feature articles demonstrate once again just how onerous our nuclear legacy is. For security reasons, underground storage seems preferable to widely dispersed surface storage, but only if we can recover and redeploy the material if necessary. The National Research Council gets it right: “A management system that is flexible, responsive to surprises, capable of midcourse correction and effective in its interaction with concerned segments of the public has the greatest possibility of success. … Decision makers, particularly those in national programs, should recognize the public’s reluctance to accept irreversible actions and emphasize monitoring and retrievability.”

Believe your compass,
 

Samuel S. Adams, Editor-in-Chief


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