Seattle Post-Intelligencer


Seattle Post-Intelligencer

December 30, 1998

After spending 15 years and $6 billion on the latest search for a final resting place for nuclear waste, it's no surprise that Department of Energy officials think they should spend even more time and money trying to prove it should be buried at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The DOE persists in this demented scheme even though worrisome red flags are raised in its own interim report on the fitness of the site to safely contain highly radioactive nuclear wastes that will be deadly for at least 10,000 years.

Nevertheless, the department concluded that there are "no show stoppers" that would rule out Yucca Mountain yet. A final decision on whether to proceed with the repository is due in 2001.

DOE scientists, in an interim viability assessment released Dec. 18, have found problems that should have disqualified the site as a deep repository. It lies 100 miles north of Las Vegas and 1,000 feet above the water table.

But the troubled repository at Yucca Mountain remains on track.

Chief among the acknowledged problems at Yucca Mountain is that water moves through the mountain faster than expected. That raises the risks that radioactivity could move out of the repository. That the rock into which the waste canisters will be sealed is not as impermeable as once thought should raise more alarms than it seems to have raised within the agency.

The report also concedes that the man-made waste canisters will fail long before 200,000-plus years from now, the time when the radioactive releases will be highest. This is an awkward conjunction of unpleasant events, to say the least.

Moreover, the agency concedes it still does not understand what will happen when the metal canisters interact with the rock under the conditions of extreme heat generated by the decaying radioactive waste.

The document is short on answers to the uncertainties that are inherent in constructing something capable of lasting tens of thousands of years.

Even the U.S. Geological Survey, which originally identified the site as a likely one for burying the waste, said the viability assessment contains "surprisingly little" about the uncertainties of climate change. Rainfall, now 6 inches a year, can be expected to triple in coming millennia, for example.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson offered this explanation to The New York Times: "I don't think in science one can offer certainty." He argues that since we're attempting to defeat natural ravages over millennia, we must settle for probabilities.

Given the enormity of what's at stake here, surely we can demand more certainty than this.