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August 1, 1996 E-mail:

Wasting Away: A National Nuclear Dilemma

ALEXANDRIA, VA - In 1980, Congress instructed the states to open new disposal sites for low-level radioactive wastes by mid-decade. Ten years have passed since that deadline, and no state has even broken ground for such a facility. The August issue of Geotimes probes the politics and science involved in finding new nuclear-waste disposal sites.
Politics may have more to do with the fate of site selection than science. In his article "Why Have Earth Scientists Failed to Find Suitable Nuclear Waste Disposal Sites?," hydrogeologist John B. Robertson argues that the nation's track record on this issue demands that scientists "stop and rethink the role of science and engineering in solving problems that are technological, social, and political in nature." Robertson, a former chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Office of Hazardous Waste Hydrology, draws on his experience as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee that examined seven technical concerns about the proposed Ward Valley, Calif., low-level waste disposal site. He concludes that -- despite years of technical scrutiny and the NAS study -- "the decision to develop or stop Ward Valley will probably be political."
According to Robertson, "the good science and engineering approach simply does not work." We need to focus on resolving social and political conflicts and "building a consensus" instead of "resolving technical issues first, then throwing the decision into the sociopolitical arena (where it generally founders)." Even so, Robertson suggests, real progress might require the federal government to take over responsibility for low-level radioactive waste disposal and "maybe even declare it a priority for national security."
No matter who's in charge of selecting new disposal sites, thorough scientific studies are needed to evaluate their technical suitability. Bridget Scanlon, a research scientist with the Bureau of Economic Geology, documents the decade-long hydrological evaluation that has supported the Texas siting process and discusses plans for continued site monitoring throughout and beyond its working life. Her article, "Unsaturated Zone Characterization for Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal in Texas," describes procedures and results from the detailed assessment of two desert sites. "Our studies," she explains, "have been part of the effort to determine whether the delicate balance of the natural desert ecosystem can help handle a pressing human dilemma -- the disposal of low-level radioactive waste."
When problems occur at underground waste storage facilities, they typically involve the flow of fluids. In "Beneath the Surface: Geophysical Aspects of Radioactive Waste Disposal," University of Kansas geophysics professor Don W. Steeples describes how specialists in his field provide valuable information for siting disposal facilities. "Geophysical methods are useful in site evaluations," he explains, because "they can detect fluids directly or determine shallow stratigraphy, geologic structure, and relative permeability."
Coming in September ... Geotimes looks at the quest for science literacy. Articles examine efforts by educators, museum curators, and scientists to help kids and communities understand science and appreciate its role in our lives.

Geotimes is published by the American Geological Institute, a nonprofit federation of 29 member societies representing geologists, geophysicists, and other earth and environmental scientists. The Institute also produces GeoRef, an online bibliographic database of more than 1.9 million geological references from 1785 to the present.

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