At Yucca Mountain, deadlines take precedence over science

  • Paul P. Craig

  • Mike Keefe, The Denver Post 2002

Don’t ask questions when you don’t know the answers: That’s the rule of thumb for trial lawyers who don’t want courtroom surprises.

The Bush administration has a different rule of thumb when it comes to the science of storing nuclear waste: Ask as few questions as possible, and ignore answers you don’t like.

Until January, I served as a member of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, exploring the safety of a proposed national, high-level, nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Congress created the nonpartisan 11-member board to provide technical advice about Yucca Mountain to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. Its members — all scientists and engineers with expertise relevant to Yucca Mountain — were appointed by the president from a list submitted by the National Academy of Science.

The board concluded that the present design for Yucca Mountain is deficient, and unless it is changed, the nation’s high-level waste repository is likely to leak. Our conclusion has been ignored.

For the Bush administration, the development of Yucca Mountain for nuclear storage was a foregone conclusion. The Energy Department is spending over a half-billion dollars on Yucca this year, almost all of it for getting a license application in to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of 2004. The administration wants to begin construction as soon as possible, and is committed to burying waste by 2010.

The big reason for the rush is that the nuclear industry is desperate for the government to take nuclear waste off its hands. The industry sees the waste problem as standing in the way of relicensing old reactors and building new ones. It’s pushing the Bush administration hard, and the administration seems all too anxious to respond. The result is a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. Protecting the public should come first.

Unfortunately, designing the Yucca Mountain repository turned out to be far more complex than had been anticipated. There’s been one surprise after another. Yucca Mountain was selected as the site because it is located in the desert, and it was thought the arid climate would keep the waste dry. It turns out the mountain is wet. It was thought that the water wouldn’t move the waste underground very quickly. Wrong again: Water moves through the mountain so fast that in order to meet the regulatory requirements for isolation from the biosphere, the Energy Department had to add better-engineered waste containment canisters to the design.

It now turns out that those canisters are likely to corrode. Every member of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board I served on reached that conclusion, and it was the essence of our report delivered to the Congress and the secretary of Energy last November. The report was ignored.

In its haste to meet deadlines, the Bush administration has a pattern of putting politics ahead of science. History reveals plenty of examples of how that approach can lead to disaster. During the Reagan administration, the Challenger space shuttle was lost because its O-rings froze. NASA engineers knew of the problem, but management wanted to keep the launch deadline. Last year, a presidential commission concluded that the shuttle Columbia was lost for similar reasons: Management put deadlines over safety.

I hope my resignation from a review board shouting in the darkness will bring attention to what’s going on at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Here’s my advice: Slow down. The nuclear waste is going to have to sit for thousands of years. We might as well take the time to make sure we bury it safely.

I also think President Bush should instruct the Energy Department to build up science programs instead of shutting them down. If the science shows that the project can be accomplished, then by all means apply for a permit. It is true that the science might once again bring up new problems. There’s no way to know in advance — that’s the nature of science.

But for now, there’s no technical reason to rush. The urgency is entirely political. A sound repository is probably achievable, if time is taken to get the science and engineering right. Meanwhile, nuclear waste can be safely stored for many decades on site in dry casks, giving us time to find a reliable, long-term solution.

Rushing ahead with a flawed design is a mistake. Unfortunately, it’s a mistake the Department of Energy is rushing to make.

Paul P. Craig is professor of engineering emeritus at the University of California at Davis, and was a member of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review from 1996 until January 2004.

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