American Press

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American Press Editorial

Underground burial isn't final solution

2/12/99

Is it possible to tell what any spot on the surface of this planet will be like a quarter-million years from now? No? Well, government bureaucrats think they can go even deeper into the future than that.

They intend to predict what the underground structure of a single desert ridge in Nevada will be like in the year 251999 a year so far away that we don't even know whether it deserves a comma.

A lot depends upon whether they're right or wrong. Seventy-two civilian power plants have stacked up more than 40,000 tons of used reactor fuel that the government must find a place to bury. And the pile gets larger daily.

The U.S. Department of Energy is considering developing an underground disposal site in Nevada for the highly radioactive nuclear waste, despite some uncertainties with the choice.

The proposed Yucca Mountain waste facility in the Nevada desert has been under study for nearly a dozen years. A final decision on the site must be made in 2001.

What's the uncertainty?

The Energy Department has to decide whether the site, on a desert ridge 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has the geology to isolate more than 80,000 tons of used reactor fuel for 250,000 years or longer.

Trying to determine whether the geology is good for a quarter-million years in the future has already taken the Energy Department 11 years and cost $2.2 billion.

Critics, including a number of environmental organizations, have urged the Energy Department to scuttle the project. They cited studies by outside scientists raising the possibility that radioactive material might seep into ground water during the many centuries the waste will remain dangerous. Other scientists have raised the prospect of potential problems like earthquakes and volcanic activity.

The Energy Department says those issues can be "resolved" and that work on the project should proceed, although the department failed to say how it might resolve a future earthquake or volcanic activity.

The feds may be giving in to impatience at this point. Over three decades, the government has spent almost $6 billion in its search for a permanent site for keeping radioactive waste. In 1987, Congress limited the search to Yucca Mountain.

If any of this sounds familiar to Southwest Louisiana readers, it's because of arguments presented a few years ago when industrial waste was being pumped into injection wells at Willow Springs in West Calcasieu Parish.

Officials with the disposal company said extensive studies had been conducted and that a hard clay cap would prevent any of the injected material from seeping into the Chicot Aquifer that provides water for thousands of area residents.

How long would such protection last? Thousands of years, the company experts said.

Burying anything underground carries risks. And attempting to predict the future of geological structures far into the future is even riskier.

In this scenario, every positive assurance that geology will hold in the future, whether it's for thousands or a quarter-million years, can be defeated with a single query: "What if it doesn't?"

We asked it then about Willow Springs. We ask it now about Yucca Mountain.