It must be tough to be a geologist.
You basically study the behavior of rocks, which usually don't move around fast enough to provide many clues about their personality.
It must doubly frustrating to be a geologist working on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. The technical work on that facility is being done "on a time scale of centuries," one expert said.
"We continue to have extensive supporting research to provide as good as possible a technical basis for the societal decisions that need to be made to manage our legacy of high-level waste," said D. Warner North, who is a geologist himself, with the rather cumbersome title of chairman of the Committee on the Disposition of High Level Radioactive Waste Through Geologic Isolation.
Since Congress decided earlier this year to override Nevada's veto of the Yucca Mountain site, North and his colleagues have optimistically concluded that the waste disposal process has moved from the political arena to the technical one.
"Who are you going to trust?" he asks. "People or rocks?"
All around the country, nuclear power plants are running out of storage space for the spent fuel. In California, according to Department of Energy data, pool storage for the Humboldt Bay and Rancho Seco nuclear plants is full. Pool storage for the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre plants will be full in about 2005. California gets about 17 percent of all of its energy from nuclear power. Both Diablo Canyon and San Onofre are expected to continue operating for 18 years after they run out of waste storage space.
In New York, pool storage at Indian Point 1 is full. Indian Point 2 and 3 will be full by 2005, Fitzpatrick by 2004, Nine Mile Point and Ginna by 2009. Nuclear power provides 23 percent of New York state's power and three of its plants are expected to operate 10 or more years after their waste storage capacity is maxed out.
This scenario is repeated with greater and lesser degrees of urgency in the remainder of the 39 states that have operating nuclear power plants.
"We are not confronting a hypothetical problem," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham wrote President Bush last February. "We have a staggering amount of radioactive waste in this country -- nearly 100,000,000 gallons of high-level nuclear waste and more than 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel with more created every day."
In his transmittal letter accompanying DOE's recommendation to use the Yucca Mountain site, Abraham said, "America's choice is not between, on the one hand, a disposal site with costs and risks held to a minimum, and, on the other, a magic disposal system with no costs or risks at all. Instead, the real choice is between a single secure site, deep under the ground at Yucca Mountain, or making do with what we have now or some variant of it -- 131 aging surface sites, scattered across 39 states."
Every one of those sites was built on the assumption it would be temporary, the secretary's letter noted. "As time goes by, every one is closer to the limit of its safe life span. And every one is at least a potential security risk -- safe for today, but a question mark in decades to come."
As Stan said to Ollie, "This is fine mess you've gotten us into." What to do? What to do?
As North's title confirms, what the nation has decided to do is bury it. This in itself represents a significant technical decision. High-level waste is dangerous for a very long time. The government has set a 10,000-year safety standard the Yucca Mountain facility. That's longer than the entire history of human civilization or, if you prefer, twice as old as the Great Pyramid at Giza.
Even this generous timetable is arbitrary. Many radioactive waste products remain dangerous for longer than that -- some for millions of years.
Any burial of nuclear waste contains the flavor of arbitrariness. How do you guarantee our descendants 10 millennia from now won't have a gargantuan mess on their hands?
A rejected alternative involved disposing of the stuff in the deep ocean, even though water shields this kind of radioactivity pretty well and some deep ocean basins have been geologically stable for many times the expected lifespan of the nuclear waste. Also, fewer people live nearby. The problem is, once you dump the stuff there, it by and large becomes impossible to retrieve.
Likewise rejected were launching it into space toward the sun and transmutating it into less dangerous material -- both technologically and/or economically remote ideas.
So, we're left with Nevada's rocks, and with rocks come geologists, geologists who are trying to predict how Yucca Mountain is going to behave over those aforementioned next 10,000 years. The waste will be buried 1,000 feet below the surface, in an area above the water table, but below the area where most of the surface water penetrates.
DOE has calculated 95 percent of the 12.5 inches of rainfall the area receives annually either runs off, evaporates or is picked up by plant root systems.
In addition, the waste will be protected by a titanium shield, the world's most expensive umbrella, to reduce water penetration even further.
Water is the biggest and most obvious problem. It can corrode the containers, exposing the waste. It can carry radioactive particles to the surface as it migrates through the water table.
DOE plans to deal with this prospect by operating a "hot" repository. When the waste containers are stored close together, they will spontaneously generate a lot of heat -- not enough to cause a meltdown, but when the repository is sealed, temperatures will rise beyond the boiling point of water. This should, in turn, evaporate any water that enters, sending it back up into the overhead rock as steam. Minerals in the steam should precipitate out, forming another impermeable layer above the waste facility. That's the hypothesis, at least.
The possibility of earthquakes or volcanoes at the site is considered too remote to worry about -- although the local geologic record contains both occurrences.
All of these technical considerations rely heavily on understanding rocks and predicting the forces that Earth can unleash upon them. But geologists are being asked to do things they are ill equipped to do. Their science is a historical science, not a predictive one.
One of geology's charms is a lot of it is useless for most practical purposes -- the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. No matter what your scientific background, predicting the future is hazardous. Over 10,000 years, even rocks can be treacherously unreliable.
Who are you going to trust? Rocks or people?
Something even more basic somehow was not addressed in this debate: Why have we continued to produce this stuff when we've had no good place to put it? DOE has generated reams of fancy material on the theme, "Why Yucca Mountain?" One searches in vain for a single sentence containing the corollary: Why Diablo Canyon? Why Indian Point?
Isn't it simply bad manners to continue producing poisons in our neighborhood, only to leave them lying out there on the curb for the neighborhood children to wade in?