DOE and the volcano

 

Judith Lewis' story "Mountain of Doubt" in the Jan. 19, 2009, issue of HCN provides an admirably accurate and balanced description of the history of Department of Energy-led efforts to establish Yucca Mountain as a safe repository for the nation's high-level nuclear waste.

Beyond the politics, Lewis explains, "Doubts about Yucca Mountain's geologic suitability have piled up as well. A panel of scientists put the chances of igneous disruption in the ridgeline's ancient field of volcanoes at one in 6,250 over the next 10,000 years." She points out that even if one in 6,250 seems low, "in most of the United States the probability of a volcano erupting is zero."

I was a member of the panel mentioned by Lewis. A summary of our results was published in Science (Nov. 8, 1996, v. 274, p. 913-914). Our marching orders (10 of us selected as experts in volcanology) were to determine the probability that an igneous dike (a sheet of molten magma) would intersect the repository footprint in the coming 10,000 years. I voiced concern about what the consequences to the repository would be if a dike were to feed a violent volcanic eruption. A style of eruption called phreatomagmatic (during which 2,000 degree Fahrenheit magma encounters groundwater and thus triggers violent steam explosions) could be particularly damaging to the repository.

The Energy Department has recently sponsored studies to model the effects to the repository in the event of a volcanic eruption, excluding the phreatomagmatic style. To which I caution: Ignoring a potential problem does not make it disappear.

Of all possible repository locations within the Nevada Test Site, none is closer to the region's youngest volcanoes than Yucca Mountain. A half-dozen volcanoes are located in Crater Flat, just west of Yucca Mountain. These are less than 1,000,000 years old. The youngest is 80,000 years old, and its deposits include evidence of a possible phreatomagmatic phase of eruption.

To see what a phreatomagmatic eruption can do, drive 60 miles west of Yucca Mountain to Ubehebe Crater Volcano at the north end of Death Valley National Park. There, about 2,000 years ago, a phreatomagmatic eruption blasted a crater a half-mile wide and 1,000 feet deep.

I am on public record as favoring new electrical generating capacity at nuclear power plants. However, I submit that using Yucca Mountain for storage would bring exposure to an uncomfortable, and some would argue unacceptable, level of volcanic hazard.

Wendell A. Duffield
Adjunct Professor,
Geology Department,
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, Arizona

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Conservation Project Manager Position Description Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for...
  • NOVA SCOTIA OCEAN FRONT
    Camp or Build on 2+ acres in Guysborough. FSBO. $36,000 US firm. Laurie's phone: 585-226-2993 EST.
  • TECHNICAL ADVISOR TO THE GOOD NEIGHBOR AGREEMENT
    Northern Plains Resource Council seeks an independent contractor to implement the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA) between local communities and the Sibanye-Stillwater Mining Company in Montana....