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David Talbot

A View from David Talbot

Can a Scientist be Biased Against Rocks?

The world needs nuclear power to reduce the emissions causing climate change, but that depends partly on finding a place to store decades’ worth of accumulated waste

  • September 11, 2013

Let’s be honest, don’t we all harbor just a little but of personal bias against at least some kinds of rocks? 

That absurd notion arises as Nevada’s Yucca Mountain–designated by Congress a quarter century ago as a candidate repository for U.S. nuclear waste–has been put back on the table.   A federal appeals court recently ordered the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to restart its safety review of Yucca, three years after the Obama administration cut funds.  Obama had cited unresolved safety questions after two decades of review.  Meanwhile, around 70,000 tons of waste, mostly fuel rods from nuclear power plants, has piled up at reactor sites.  Most of it sits in water pools that require continual circulation to avoid melting and the theoretical potential for regional contamination.

The waste will stay dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. It gives off a lot of heat.  And it’s a security threat.  Those facts make the arcane particulars of geology pretty important when contemplating where to bury it.  And the NRC chairman appointed last year, Allison Macfarlane, is a geologist who edited a book on the subject. Now her scientific work is now being politicized.  And an interview I did with Macfarlane on the topic four years ago (see “Life After Yucca Mountain”) being used as ammo.

In our chat she made plain that the initial Congressional siting decision was made for political reasons–not geological ones. I asked her if the site was unsuitable. Here’s what she said:

 “Yes. The area is seismically and volcanically active. More significantly, the repository would have an oxidizing environment–meaning materials there would be exposed to free oxygen in the air. Neither spent nuclear fuel nor canister materials are stable in such an environment in the presence of water. The United States is the only country that is considering a repository in an oxidizing environment.”

The first word, “Yes,” became political cudgel.  During confirmation hearings for her chairmanship last year, she was grilled about that “Yes” by U.S. Rep Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican.  Next up was Nye County, Nevada—which wants to host the repository. The county petitioned Macfarlane to recuse herself, citing her academic work and pointing to the word “Yes” as evidence of possible impartiality, or even personal bias.

Macfarlane this week declined to recuse herself. That’s good. Decisions about where to put nuclear waste should be based on science.

Meanwhile, we still don’t have an actual plan for the waste.  And that’s helping hold back the nuclear renaissance we need to reduce fossil fuel burning and deal seriously with climate change (see “Climate Change: the Moral Choices” and “A Leaked Climate Report a Reminder of Technology’s Failure”).  As the U.S. political beat goes on–House Republicans yesterday accused the NRC of stalling–other countries are making progress, including this Finnish waste facility being carved out of geologically stable bedrock.  Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has recently said the United States needs alternative sites and perhaps a new agency to get the job done.  Some argue that it would make sense to put the waste in a central above-ground site for now (see “A New Vision for Nuclear Waste”).  Sadly, I’m sure the rock-throwing is far from over.

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