Scientization Of Politics: The Reason Yucca Mountain Was Cancelled
    By Hank Campbell | December 14th 2012 09:59 AM | 12 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

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    Nuclear power is not mired in regulatory uncertainty because the science is unsettled, the overwhelming majority of scientists accept physics and the really overwhelming consensus of nuclear physicists accept the safety of nuclear power.

    Before you think, 'well, they would, wouldn't they?' keep in mind that climate scientists have far higher acceptance of global warming models than other scientists too.  We rely on the confidence of experts in fields to help guide policy issues on science topics. Yet while we vilify any skepticism on climate change models, an entire multi-billion industry has sprung up around energy activism and claiming that, unlike climate change, the experts in the field cannot be trusted.

    While advocacy groups like Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace raise a lot of money fomenting fear and doubt about food and energy, two of the three biggest science policy issues America faces today, they are not alone in taking the blame for why we don't have a real nuclear waste disposal policy. That blame falls squarely both on politicians and the judges who allowed the Obama administration to unilaterally cancel the Yucca Mountain project in a shocking abuse of executive power.

    We did once have a nuclear waste storage plan. It had been tested, verified and argued for decades - expensive, and worth every penny.  It was a state-of-the-art modern facility designed to replace over 100 local storage options currently in use. How did it happen? Wasn't the Nuclear Regulatory Commission created in 1974 to come up with science-based solutions and implement them without being hijacked by politicians?

    Indeed it was, but when not one but two anti-science activists are appointed to run it - and they both campaigned against Yucca Mountain, which is why they got the job - you know science has left the building.  The latest head of the NRC even put together a whole book criticizing Yucca Mountain as a disposal site, denying the work of every scientist who contributed to numerous International Atomic Energy AgencyNational Research Council and Department of Energy studies, including the Final Environmental Impact Statement, which found it would still be safe 10,000 years from now.

    Allison Macfarlane, now chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, instead said storage was unnecessary - yes, storing nuclear waste is not urgent.  A weird claim for an activist to make, though she is a geologist and not a physicist. But MacFarlane was only the latest problem, a functionary put in place to reliably kill the project and who would be enthusiastic about leaving science out of any thought process.

    Years earlier, Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid, of Nevada, who was against nuclear waste in any desolate, safe, wasteland in the Nevada desert - classic Not In My Back Yard-ism - held up all of President Bush’s executive branch nominations until Bush agreed to put his former aide Gregory Jaczko on the NRC. Why would anyone agree to do that?  Well, the media climate was different then.  When Republicans hold things up now, we get doomsday prophecies about a fiscal cliff and claims that they're doing it because they don't care about Kwanzaa.  But when Democrats did it to Republicans, it was smart politics and completely justified, so Harry Reid was not called anti-science despite the fact that he denied decades of research by scientists to rationalize his personal belief

    In Science Left Behind, we had to cover a lot of ground to show all the ways social authoritarian progressives hijack science time and again - and that meant Yucca Mountain had to be just one example; a scant two pages when a book can only be 300 pages long.  But it always merited a book in its own right because it typifies how a science manipulation problem we were told originated with President George W. Bush and that was limited to Republicans was actually a cancer long before and has become worse since.  

    Had a Republican president secretly ordered the starvation of a long-running science project while publicly setting up a fair 'blue ribbon commission' on it, the Union of Concerned Scientists would be gathering 4,000 signatures to protest his efforts to "manipulate and control science for political reasons" but, like war protests, science protests about anti-science behavior disappeared when a Democrat started doing the manipulation. Who was on that 'blue ribbon' impartial commission supposedly giving a fair chance to Yucca Mountain while the president was killing the funding for the project? The same Allison MacFarlane, who now runs the body whose work she is against.

    President Obama broke the law, plain and simple, but legal issues are too arcane for a science article, and he did it to support his anti-science agenda. There was no interest in letting science drive the nation’s science policy, any more than there has been regarding any other science issue. Instead, past, current and scientific findings were irrelevant because they violate his personal world view. At least President George W. Bush only limited federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research - what would the reaction have been had he publicly appointed a commission to 'study' it after he already privately declared he wanted it dead, and then put an anti-hESC person in charge of the NIH?

    Fortunately, Adam White writing at The New Atlantis has gotten into details I could not.  He writes an excellent overview of what went wrong in an article called "Yucca Mountain: A Post-Mortem", and it is definitely worth a read if you truly care about restoring science to its rightful place, and not just about science integrity when one party is in the White House.


    Excellent assessment, as is Adam White's more detailed article. If most Americans do not care about our leaders' adherence to the law, why would the leaders fear public outrage.

    Ironically, bordering on hypocritically, MacFarlane was quoted by an AP story today as saying, "In general one of the important takeaways from the Fukushima accident is the importance of a strong, independent regulator that operates transparently and is well-funded and has the backing of the government."

    And yet in practice she advocates 0 of those 5 things.
    Hank, you really missed the mark with this article. Sure, politics played a part in the demise of the Yucca Mountain project, but it played a much, much bigger part in what occurred to allow an unacceptable sitre like Yucca to be singled out in the firts place. The 1987 Amendments to the original Nuclear Waste Policy Act that singled out Nevada’s Yucca Mountain did so for purely political reasons, in spite of serious technical problems with the site. Washington, Texas, Louisiana, and other states with potential repository sites used raw political muscle to get their states off the hook, while Nevada was a target of opportunity because of the state’s political vulnerability at the time (Harry Reid was just a lowly freshman senator with no clout).

    However, the 1987 Amendments did much more than just single out Yucca Mountain as the only site to be studied. By scrapping the original, scientific site screening process, Congress assured there would be no multiple sites from which to choose – just one highly questionable Nevada site. In addition, regional equity was scrapped – there would be no second repository in the east and system flexibility was eliminated – no temporary storage site was to be allowed. In the end, DOE’s repository project went from a science-based program asking the question, “Is this site suitable?” to an engineering program governed by the dictum, “How do we make Yucca work in spite of all of the site’s serious flaws?”

    As DOE’s characterization of Yucca evolved, and as each new failing of the Nevada site was uncovered, DOE simply instituted engineering fixes intended to substitute for the shortcomings of the geologic setting. Those shortcomings are numerous and serious. Yucca is in an extremely active geologic environment with high levels of seismic/earthquake activity; relatively young volcanic activity and risks of renewed volcanism are present; there is evidence of ground stretching suggesting magma nearer the surface; the repository would be located in an oxidizing/corrosive subsurface environment that would rapidly erode the waste packages and allow radionuclides to escape; and rapid water movement through the subsurface would quickly move the waste to the aquifer below and into the accessible environment. Hardly an ideal location for “geologic disposal” of dangerous and extremely long-live radioactive materials.

    In the end, the notion of a “deep geologic repository” was transformed into an engineered facility that relies almost exclusively on highly suspect human-built components to keep wastes isolated from people and the environment for tens of thousands of years. The site itself is incapable of isolating spent fuel and high-level radioactive wastes. In a desperate attempt to make the site look acceptable, DOE’s performance models assume that waste disposal packages will remain intact for at least 10,000 years to as many as 750,000 years underground. As a result, manmade components account for 99% of the waste isolation capacity of the proposed waste isolation system, with Yucca’s geology accounting for only 1%.

    So, let's stop this fantasy about what a great site Yucca is and how it's just politics that derailed it. If politics hadn't taken over the ;program in 1987, the country today could very well have a functioning repository by now, just not at Yucca Mountain.

    I certainly agree that politics was not just evident at the end, it was evident throughout - but this business about how flawed and dumb we are about building a safe site is right out of MacFarlane's book. It's just lucky for American science we don't pick heads of the NSF or the NIH the way we pick heads for the NRC.  Or America would be dead last in all science the way we are energy science today.
    I am not sure what criteria you are using to label Yucca Mountain as an unacceptable site. The NRC staff would not have found the Yucca Mt. site "unacceptable" for either health or safety issues if the staff's report had not been quashed, then whitewashed, and had NRC been allowed to complete the licensing proceeding. Indeed, the NRC's licensing process was (notice the past tense) designed not to either endorse or disqualify, but rather to determine what additional conditions were required to ensure health and safety. Only the uninformed or naive could ever have believed the object of the drill was to find pure geologic perfection. Engineered barrier systems were part of the very early DOE design, not merely some johnny-come-lately expediency on the part of DOE.

    The licensing process fully anticipated constant engineering adaptation, that is why there is a three-stage licensing: construction authorization, waste acceptance, and repository closure all would have had separate licensing phases to monitor the as-built's adequacy.

    There is no "perfect" geologic solution for disposal, never was, never will be. Each of the original sites such as Deaf Smith County, the salt domes, etc., had some features that needed to be addressed. Actually, Yucca had perhaps the greatest number of highly desirable features that put it at the top of the list regardless of political clout. Those features included that it was in a closed basin, in an arid region, with a water table hundreds of feet down, it was remote from population centers, on federal government controlled property that was already highly secure, etc. What proved to be unaddressable was the mindless, near-sighted, and morally reprehensible sale of scientific integrity at the auction block of electoral votes.

    Right. A really bad solution is 100+ local storage sites.  I am baffled how a trained geologist who claims to care about science said modern storage for nuclear waste was not needed - and that she has actual authority on what is supposed to be a nonpartisan science policy body.
    Dear Mr Hank Campbell,

    Your review highlighted important elements in the spent fuel waste management via Yucca Mountain project.
    Those in nuclear industry (in USA and elesewhere) were waiting with bated breaths to see the success of the project. Specialists can appreciate the intricacies of political discourse and the nuances of judicial and legislative processes. However, the lay public continue to believe that high-level nuclear waste question as unsolvable. Lack of transparency was the main reason. Policy makers on any issue must take people into confidence. All stakeholders must feel comfortable with the solution

    A couple of points.

    For some issues the national interest is paramount and the federal government makes decisions that not "all" stakeholders feel comfortable. America fought a Civil War over the issue (among others) of a state's rights to choose societal "solutions". President Truman made a decision to use a weapon of mass destruction on civilian targets to bring a war to a conclusion. Walk through American history, the story is replete with examples of the federal government stepping in to straighten the course when it is a matter of national resolve. Localized (albeit at a very high level) political manipulation is undermining already settled public policy and the underlying science involved here.

    In the case of Yucca Mountain, media manipulation has been a strategic tool in developing public "perception".

    Finally, Only idealogues speak in terms such as "all must".

    Fortunes are made when paradigms change. Words matter. The unquestioned cliché of lazy journalism that this material is “waste” needs to be continually challenged.

    The fact is there remains vast amounts of energy in this once-used LWR fuel. The decay heat given off by the 3% of the material that are fission products, decreasing exponentially, is reliable and predictable to a fraction of a calorie per gram. In fact it is so reliable that no one knows how to turn it off! This “problem” is in fact a solution to any process that can utilize a constant source of low-grade heat over a period of several centuries. Some of the fission products are rare materials useful for medical diagnostics, radiography, or food preservation. And the recycled plutonium is NOT “weapons-grade”, but is quite usable in reactors. Get the politicians and fear-mongerers out of the way and send in the engineers:
    Kirk Sorensen, “Is Nuclear Waste Really Waste?”
    George Monbiot, “A Waste of Waste”

    The remaining 97%, consisting of fissile or fissionable uranium or transuranic isotopes, is capable of producing massive amounts of energy in Generation IV IFR or LFTR reactors (google them). There is enough fissionable/fertile material already mined, processed, and refined in the United States alone to supply this country with electric power for more than a century - if it is utilized properly, and not just buried in a ludicrously expensive desert tomb. Only the tiny percentage of the fission products that are truly unusable should be vitrified and safely stored at Yucca, and only a few centuries (NOT millennia) would be required before their radioactivity has decayed to background levels. This highly-engineered repository (not “dump”) could supply an all-nuclear America with thousands of years of storage space if used thusly.

    It has been estimated that the value of electricity that could be generated from this “waste”, if utilized in Gen IV reactors, would be $30 Trillion:

    If Nevadans are smart, they would not only charge a hefty fee for accepting the “waste”, but would insist on taking legal title to it, thereby positioning themselves as the Saudi Arabia of Gen IV atomic fuel.

    This is the last post of yours I'll waste my time reading. Your partisanship and personal attacks crowd out any relevant knowledge you may be attempting to impart. I would have thought that a site called Science 2.0 would stick to educating readers and leave the schoolyard taunts to others. Rush has that area covered.

    I know how you vote.
    Josh Gilder, Senior Director of The White House Writers Group, sent me a link to an article he wrote a few years ago, which I think provides some good context.
    the models currently estimate that nearby residents will receive little to no radiation from Yucca in the next 10,000 years. Three hundred thousand years from now, nearby residents might receive an additional 260 millirem per year, assuming earth hasn’t been demolished by an asteroid by then. You could expose yourself to almost as much extra radiation by becoming a frequent flyer.
    "Throughout the Southwest, scientists have found underground rat nests — made up of droppings and other organic debris that would easily rot if exposed to water — as much as 50,000 years old. The Egyptian mummies attest to how well dry climates preserve things."
    Yucca was the best location if we want clean energy and, really, NV could have charged the other states anything they wanted for the privilege of using their desolate wasteland.