Blue Planet: Nuclear mountain in deep time

By DAN WHIPPLE  |  Nov. 10, 2004 at 9:47 AM
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BOULDER, Colo., Nov. 12 (UPI) -- One thing many of the so-called red states -- those that went Republican -- had in common in this past election is lots of land owned by the federal government. An issue that almost turned one of those red states, Nevada, blue and in the Democrat column was the Bush administration's effort to move nearly all the nation's nuclear waste products under a mountain on some of that land.

A pretty good college drinking game could comprise all of the things that could go wrong with long-term nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, the place north of Las Vegas on the Nevada test site that has been chosen to receive the nation's radioactive detritus: nuclear war, asteroid collision, terrorist attack, excess rainfall induced by climate change, drilling for oil and gas or water, earthquake, volcano.

Predicting the future for even the next few minutes can be an uncertain affair. As the saying goes, man plans and God laughs.

No question, the waste designated to be moved to and stored at Yucca Mountain is extremely dangerous.

"The waste will be hazardous in one form or another for 1 million years," said John Stuckless, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver, "although most will decay away in 10,000 years."

No coincidence, Environmental Protection Agency standards for Yucca Mountain require the waste be safely isolated from the environment for exactly that long. For a sense of scale, consider that the Great Pyramid of Egypt was built a little more than 4,500 years ago, or 5,500 years short of the mark. Ur, built about 6,000 years ago and considered the world's first city, today is little more than a noticeable rise in the terrain in southern Iraq.

Prognosticators of all stripes have had trouble predicting events a single year in the future, let alone what might happen in the next 10,000.

Which is not to say scientists are not trying. Some would hold a distinct advantage in the drinking game, having studied everything from the likelihood of an earthquake hitting Nevada to the chemical composition of the dust being kicked up as the vast repository is mined.

It probably is safe to say no patch of the Earth has been studied any more intensely than Yucca Mountain. There already have been 900 man-years of research at the site, and the pace shows no sign of slowing.

Take the earthquake possibility.

"We know more about the seismic stability of this area than any other block of ground in the world," Stuckless told UPI's Blue Planet. "Most earthquakes will have very little effect on these underground facilities."

How little? According to work done by Dave Buesch, another USGS geologist based in Las Vegas, the lyrically named Topopah Springs Tuff -- the geologic layer in which the waste repository is located -- has not been hit by a serious earthquake in all the years since it was formed.

"In-progress results indicate that during the 12.8-million-year history of the Topopah Springs Tuff the rocks did not experience strains greater than 0.1-0.2 percent, which are not large enough to induce significant damage to the rock mass," he said.

Ditto for volcanoes. There are a few in the area, including the dramatic Black Cone, a 100-meter-high frustum of basalt on Crater Flat adjacent to Yucca Mountain, but it is 11.3 million years old. There has been extensive drilling and a very detailed aerial survey of volcanic remnants searching for possible volcano hazards. Four boreholes have encountered basalt, but the most recent volcanic event occurred about 3.6 million years ago.

Against such evidence, scientists estimate the odds of a volcanic event during Yucca's intended lifetime at about one in 10,000, according to Frank Perry of the earth and environmental science division at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Lots of alternative ideas have been proposed for storing this waste -- shooting it into space, sinking it to the bottom of ocean, among others -- but the administration and its scientists have recommended burial.

"Geologic disposal is the best alternative," Stuckless said. "Scientific data gathered to date support the decision to recommend Yucca Mountain."

One other consideration: By nearly any measure, Yucca Mountain is preferable to leaving the waste where it is. It comprises about 50,000 metric tons lying around in 39 states.

The waste is stored mostly in water-filled swimming pools that were designed as temporary storage facilities until the government took over the responsibility for final disposition under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act. It directed the Department of Energy to begin disposing of the waste in a geologic repository by 1998.

As in so many federal endeavors, the deadline has slipped.

The current waste storage is concentrated where most nuclear power plants are located -- on the East and West costs. Right now, about 161 million people live within 75 miles of these facilities or storage sites.

Despite the scientific consensus that all is well at Yucca Mountain -- and despite the widely accepted wisdom that America's dependency on Middle East oil is a bad habit -- local and national opposition to anything nuclear has increased. Construction of new nukes was dealt a death blow with the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania and the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station accident in the former Soviet Union. The nuke industry's credibility -- not high even its heyday -- has never recovered.

Yet the waste sits, waiting.

Some of the concerns are human and organizational. Who will administer this site for 10,000 years? How can future, possibly non-English-speaking generations be warned?

No civilization has lasted 10,000 years. The United States, at 228, is the world's oldest existing democracy. England is 1,500 or so. Persia maybe 2,500. China more than 4,500. Writing appeared 6,000 years ago. It seems likely over the next 10,000 years civilization will experience similar ups and downs.

In 1984, linguist Thomas A. Sebeok was commissioned by the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation and a group of other institutions to study possible ways of communicating to unforeseen future societies the potential danger of Yucca Mountain. He found, basically, the problem had no solution, no permanent universal language to convey "Danger! Keep Out!" forever.

The problem: Words and pictures depend on context, and over 10,000 years, context vanishes. Only a few generations after the last pharaoh, the knowledge of how to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics had disappeared. Without the Rosetta Stone, scientists still might be arguing what the symbols mean.

Sebeok did suggest one possible strategy, but in the process he managed to damage the public image of the nuclear industry even further.

Sebeok said maybe the United States could establish sort of an "atomic priesthood" -- an organization whose solemn duty would be to hand down the critical information from one generation to the next, evolving with time into an eternal taboo reaching back into time immemorial.

That assumes a lot, not the least of which, according to Todd LaPorte, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is Murphy's Law.

It is "a pretty good characterization of the way things operate," LaPorte said. "Trial and error learning doesn't seem like such a good model in this case."


Blue Planet is a weekly series by UPI exploring the relationship of humans to the environment. E-mail

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