One Hundred Centuries of Solitude:

Redirecting America's High-Level

Nuclear Waste Policy


James Flynn, James Chalmers, Doug Easterling, Roger Kasperson, Howard Kunreuther, C.K. Mertz, Alvin Mushkatel, K. David Pijawka, and Paul Slovic with Lydia Dotto, Science Writer

Note: This is a book written by a team of scientists and researchers who have been studying the federal government's high-level radioactive active waste management program since 1986. The chapters reprinted below are reflective of the authors' objectives in writing the book and the recommendations that were made for successfully addressing the nation's nuclear waste problems. The book was published by Westview Press, copyright (c) 1995. The excerpts reproduced here (approximately 10 pages total) are used by permission. A limited number of copies of the complete book are available from the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, Capitol Complex, Carson City, Nevada 89710 (Fax: 702-687-5277), or copies can be obtained from the publisher by contacting Westview Press at 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, Colorado 80301-2877 (Fax: 303-449-3356).


Time is both the ally of high-level nuclear waste (HLNW) managers and the enemy. It is the ally because the radioactivity in elements and isotopes decreases with age, making the waste progressively less dangerous to human health and safety and the environment. This rate of radioactive decline varies, in some cases diminishing by half (the half life) in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years. In other cases the decay process takes centuries or hundreds of thousands of years before the wastes are safe for human contact. The problem as now conceptualized for HLNW managers is simple to state if not easy to achieve. The HLNW needs to be secured in some fashion until it decays, by virtue of its physical nature, to safe levels. Another possible future solution, not currently available, might be to change the structure of HLNW through high-technology processing and thus decompose the waste into units with different and less lengthy radioactivity. Learning whether this processing is a future option will require patience and generous amounts of time for research.

Time is also the great enemy because it introduces tremendous uncertainties and the possibility of almost infinite variations and combinations for future events. While the past is certain--although it may be mysterious because we do not know all that has happened--the future is a storehouse of surprises and revelations. The further we attempt to peer into the future, the less distinct our sense of possibilities becomes. Uncertainty crowds out thoughts, like the terrible deity Cronus of Greek mythology, ready to devour the birth of rationality.

The political process for dealing with the problem of HLNW ultimately resulted in congressional enactment of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) in 1982. Congress decided that HLNW should be stored in a geologic repository deep underground. The regulatory process mandated by NWPA also established a performance standard for the permanent repository. It should securely store spent fuel rods from nuclear power reactors and certain wastes from the federal nuclear weapons complex for 10,000 years. In other words, the repository should impose on the wastes 100 centuries of solitude.

The trick (or perhaps we should say the task) is to find some way to store these wastes and to be assured that they can be sequestered for 10,000 years. The responsibility for developing the repository was assigned by Congress to the Department of Energy (DOE). DOE's ideas of what they were to do, who they were to convince, and what evidence would be needed for what issues and concerns is one major subject of this book. After more than a decade and numerous large and small restructurings of the program, the goal of providing a repository for HLNW is as far away as ever. Despite the Congress' 1987 selection of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the nation's only site to be studied as a repository location, much doubt remains. The Yucca Mountain project teeters along, constantly on the verge of collapse. There is a very significant possibility that the site will not meet the technical, scientific, and public acceptance standards needed for success.

Based on research conducted since 1986, this book describes basic issues and concerns that beset the Yucca Mountain project, explaining the nature of the problems and reviewing how other countries have approached HLNW issues. We recommend, in chapter 7, a new approach to public policy for HLNW management. This approach would require a major change in how HLNW facilities are evaluated; it would raise the essential social, cultural, psychological, and political issues to parity with technical issues; and it would address the basic issues of developing a decision process that achieves public acceptance and support for HLNW outcomes. In short, this new approach would address a set of legitimate issues in HLNW management that have not been adequately dealt with in past programs. This limitation of past efforts accounts for the repeated failures to solve the HLNW problem.

The title of this book is adapted from the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. His work of fiction presents a somewhat strange world in which the events of nature and the actions of people are overwhelmed with surprises and sometimes amazing outcomes. The village of Macondo, for example, disintegrates under a steady rain that starts suddenly and lasts for 4 years and 11 months. Then one June morning it begins to clear, and it does not rain again for 10 years. In the 100 years of Márquez's story, very little happens in nature or in human experience as it should, that is, as people intended and expected. How much more uncertain we are in facing the prospect of 100 centuries, even if our gaze is focused only on a mountainous block of rock in the Nevada desert.

James Flynn

Eugene, Oregon



The HLNW management program in the United States is failing badly, beset by technical difficulties, poor management, scientific uncertainties, cost overruns, equivocal political support, state opposition, and profound public mistrust and antipathy. It is doubtful the existing program or its managers can overcome these obstacles in its current mission to site a HLNW repository. In particular, the unfairness of the procedures used to limit site characterization efforts to Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and the stubborn disregard for local objections to the project, virtually guarantee a continuation of the fractious, messy conflicts that have dogged the waste program from its earliest days.

It's clear that a new approach to managing the program and finding a site for the repository is urgently needed. The following recommendations outline some crucial elements of such an approach.

Reevaluate the Commitment to Underground

Geologic Disposal

Congress should place a moratorium on the current program and remove the deadline of 2010 for beginning operation of the repository. Flexible and realistic timetables would allow more time for further research to be done on technical problems associated with the repository and on comparative advantages and disadvantages of different geological structures. More effort should also be devoted to developing multiple engineered barriers to isolate HLNW from the environment. A moratorium on geologic disposal would also allow time to more carefully evaluate alternative techniques, such as seabed disposal.

More importantly, delaying the disposal program would create an opportunity for the federal government to make a genuine effort to gain public acceptance and political support for the program. Delay would provide the leeway needed to establish a voluntary process for selecting a repository site.

Use Interim Storage Facilities

These facilities would buy time. Above ground storage in dry casks at reactor sites or a centralized monitored retrievable storage (MRS) facility could be used to store wastes for 100 years or more. Although not without problems, MRS would cost considerably less than a permanent geologic repository and would buy time for additional research and public consultation processes described above. The federal government should therefore abandon its current policy prohibiting the development of an MRS facility until a site for a permanent underground repository is found.

Evaluate More than One Site

By evaluating more than one site program failure will be less likely. Every effort must be made to find several states and communities willing to be considered as the location of an interim or permanent storage facility. It is crucial to keep several options open until very late in the selection process, because the repository is a first-of-its-kind facility with a great many associated uncertainties and a well-demonstrated ability to evoke intense public and political opposition. The arbitrary selection of Yucca Mountain as the only site to be characterized closed off all other options, which, given Nevada's strong and unrelenting resistance to the project, creates the very real possibility that the nation may be left without any likely repository site.

Characterizing a single site also increases risks associated with relying most heavily on geologic structures, rather than engineered barriers to isolate wastes. The former is currently the approach taken in the United States program. If the geologic barrier at the chosen site does not live up to expectations, a long and laborious site selection process would again have to be geared up from square one.

Employ a Voluntary Site Selection Process

The arbitrary and unfair procedures used to select Yucca Mountain for site characterization have been a major source of conflict and have evoked fierce public and political opposition to the project. To avoid such conflicts in the future, Congress should mandate that no community will be forced to accept a repository against its will and that potential host communities should be encouraged and permitted to play a genuine and active role in the planning, design, and evaluation of the repository. Experience from other countries shows that it is possible to develop an effective siting process that encourages such local participation. If more than one community is willing to participate in a voluntary program, it is even possible that a competitive process could result.

The approach currently taken by the United States nuclear waste negotiator to site an MRS facility is sensible; interested communities are given planning grants that do not carry with them an obligation to host the facility. These grants enable communities to learn about the technical aspects of the storage process and to determine whether local residents are really interested in hosting the facility.

A voluntary process requires not only public participation, but also an agreed-on procedure (e.g., public referendum with a two-thirds plurality) for determining whether to accept the facility. Such a voluntary process must be given every chance to work. If no community or region is willing to accept a HLNW facility, some other siting method must be found, but it must be based on principles of openness and fairness.

Negotiate Agreements and Compensation Packages

A voluntary MRS or repository siting program must offer sufficient benefits to potential host communities and regions so that their residents feel their situation has improved over the status quo. This compensation has not occurred in the case of Yucca Mountain. The federal government has offered Nevada $10 million a year during the characterization phase and $20 million a year during the operation of the repository, but nearly 66% of Nevada residents questioned in a 1993 survey believed that the harms of the repository would outweigh the benefits it would provide.

Acknowledge and Accept the Legitimacy

of Public Concerns

The attitude that HLNW disposal is merely a technical problem to be solved by experts must be abandoned. A repository program has social and economic dimensions that will seriously affect the quality of life in neighboring communities. Most notably, such a project has the potential to stigmatize these communities, making them less attractive to residents, visitors, businesses, and in-migrants. Negotiated compensation packages should take into account the fact that stigma effects could have extremely negative long-term economic and social consequences in the affected communities.

Guarantee Stringent Safety Standards

Many people associate nuclear wastes with danger and death and react to the idea of a HLNW repository with feelings of fear and dread. Their trust in the ability of waste managers to protect them from danger is not enhanced by political moves like the 1992 Energy Policy Act, which set less stringent radiation-exposure standards for Yucca Mountain than had originally been contemplated.

Public acceptance of the repository program requires assurances that public safety will be a priority. The federal government must negotiate contingent agreements with any community or region that agrees to host a repository and specify what actions will be taken should there be accidents or unforeseen events, interruptions of service, changes in standards, or the emergence of new scientific information about risks or impacts.

The use of interim storage technologies, as recommended earlier, offers some safety advantages over a permanent repository. With both reactor- site storage and a central MRS facility, wastes are kept above ground; it should be easier to deal with any problems that occur because the wastes are not buried deep underground. On the other hand, if anything happens to the repository's underground containers after the facility is permanently sealed, it would be difficult and expensive to reach them.

Restore Credibility to the Waste Disposal Program

By creating a new management organization and adopting a new management approach credibility may be restored. The history of the national HLNW management program to date underscores one glaringly obvious point: DOE has failed in its management role and is incapable of overseeing such an extraordinarily complex and uncertain program. Nor can DOE overcome widespread mistrust and skepticism about its competence, methods, and motives. Consequently, Congress should establish a new agency or organization to manage the civilian HLNW program, which should be separated from the military program. Not only have DOE's problems with military wastes severely compromised its credibility, but the job of cleaning up contaminated defense sites is vastly different than siting and managing a HLNW facility for civilian reactor wastes.

No matter which agency is assigned the job, however, a radical new management approach is needed--one committed to implementing the recommendations listed above and doing so in an open, consultative, and cooperative manner that does not seek to deny or avoid the serious social and economic dimensions of the HLNW disposal problem.

Given large inherent uncertainties with the repository program and the likelihood that it will encounter unforeseen surprises, the management approach must emphasize flexibility and adaptability. Only by frankly acknowledging the limitations of the available information and predictive techniques can program managers promote social trust and elicit a readiness to tackle the problem from a different direction if necessary.

This strategy requires a cautious and deliberate approach. Repository development must proceed in stages, allowing time to discover whether the predictions and expectations associated with the project are reasonable. Assessment techniques and models must be viewed as learning tools, not as crystal balls that can foretell the future with precision. And because we have no analytical tools that can completely eliminate the element of surprise, we must develop methods for coping with it. Such methods include (1) monitoring systems that tell us what is actually happening and help us learn as we go; (2) redundancy in systems designed to protect; (3) technical reversibility or repairability; (4) multiple geologic and engineered barriers; and finally, (5) multiple disposal sites.

Conducting the program in a careful, step-by-step fashion will permit--in fact, encourage--everyone to stop and reflect and, if necessary, make mid-course corrections mandated by new technical developments and changing social values. All of these measures will enhance the adaptability of the management system, reduce the possible consequences of any mistakes and mishaps that occur along the way, and increase the chances of recovering--and learning--from mistakes while retaining public support and confidence.

In addition to adaptability, the new management approach requires reliability (do the job without error), durability (survive for the length of time needed to complete the job), stability (continue performing the required tasks despite external changes), capacity (handle the required volume of wastes) and integrative skills (consider system-wide consequences of decisions).

Above all, we must remember that building a permanent, underground HLNW repository is essentially an experiment--one whose full social and economic dimensions are uncertain and unpredictable and likely to remain so. Citizens must decide how--and perhaps even whether--to proceed with this experiment in the face of all the unknowns and potential risks it presents.

Only by conducting the experiment in a conspicuously fair manner and making every effort to achieve social consensus about what to do can the federal government hope to rise above the mistakes and miscalculations of the past.


When Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, it directed the Department of Energy to locate, study, license, and develop a deep underground repository for high-level nuclear wastes. As the authors of this study show, by 1987 the program was in shambles, beset by opposition from every state that had a potential storage site. Congress passed amendments to the original legislation that designated Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the only site for study and development.

The authors trace the evolution of the political and social turmoil created by this difficult site-selection process, looking at the history of the nation's repository program, the nature of the public's concerns, and the effects of intergovernmental conflict. They also examine how other countries have addressed similar problems. Turning to a promising development--a dry-cask storage method judged by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be safe for a century or more--they urge a full reassessment of the nation's high-level nuclear waste policies and of existing DOE programs.

The book concludes with carefully considered recommendations for a new national policy for the storage of hazardous nuclear waste. Everyone concerned about nuclear waste and how it should be managed at the federal, state, and local levels will find valuable information in this in-depth study of the issues at hand.

James Flynn is a Senior Research Associate at Decision Research in Eugene, Oregon. He served as the Yucca Mountain socioeconomic studies project manager from 1986­1992, and since then as the project director. He has conducted socioeconomic research for federal agencies, states, private companies, and local governments on a number of industrial projects including the siting, licensing, and study of nuclear power and nuclear waste facilities. Recent publications on nuclear issues include articles in Environment, Science, Risk Analysis, Issues in Science and Technology, Energy Studies Review, and Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy. Dr. Flynn holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington.

James Chalmers, a partner in the consulting practice of Coopers & Lybrand, L.L.P., is located in Phoenix, Arizona. He was the project director of the Yucca Mountain socioeconomic studies from 1986­1992 and currently is a senior consultant to the study team. He received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan.

Doug Easterling is the Officer for Research and Evaluation at The Colorado Trust, a Denver-based foundation that funds health-related initiatives in Colorado. His role at The Colorado Trust is to develop and monitor research projects that evaluate the effectiveness of initiatives in areas such as teenage pregnancy, health promotion, and community development. He received his doctorate in Public Policy and Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Over the past 12 years, Easterling has conducted research in the fields of risk perception, psychometrics, health psychology, and environmental and health policy.

Roger Kasperson, Professor of Government and Geography and Senior Researcher at Clark University, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Dr. Kasperson is co-author or co-editor of many books on tech-nological hazards, risk communication, public responses to risk, radioactive wastes, and global environmental change. He has directed numerous research projects involving these topics, as well as on ethical and policy issues in risk management, the social amplification of risk, and social visions of a sustainable society. Dr. Kasperson has worked as consultant or advisor to public and private agencies on energy and environmental issues and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is currently serving as Provost at Clark University.

Howard Kunreuther is the Cecelia Yen Koo Professor of Decision Sciences and Public Policy, as well as Co-Director of the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania. His current research examines the role of insurance compensation, incentive mechanisms, and regulation as policy tools for dealing with technological and natural hazards. He is author and co-author of numerous scientific papers concerned with risk and policy analysis, decision processes, and protection against low-probability/high-consequence events, as well as many books and monographs. Dr. Kunreuther has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

C.K. Mertz is a researcher and data analyst with Decision Research in Eugene, Oregon. She has been involved with the State of Nevada socioeconomic research on the high-level nuclear waste repository proposed for Yucca Mountain, Nevada, since 1986. Her experience includes social, economic, and policy research, data analysis, and database management. She is a co-author of several articles and published reports.

Alvin Mushkatel is Professor of Public Affairs and Director of the Office of Hazard Studies at Arizona State University. He has authored and co-authored several books and articles on natural and environmental hazards policies. He recently co-edited a book on nuclear waste disposal policy (Greenwood Press). His current research examines the importance of public trust and stakeholder involvement in policies designed to clean up or reduce risk resulting from the use or production of hazardous technologies. Dr. Mushkatel serves on two National Research Council committees: one that examines the nation's efforts to eliminate the Army's chemical weapons stockpile, and one that analyzes the costs to decontaminate and decommission the nation's uranium enrichment plants.

K. David Pijawka is a professor in the school of Architecture and Planning at Arizona State University. He received a Ph.D. in geography from Clark University and has written numerous publications on the subjects of nuclear technology and environmental hazards.

Paul Slovic, President of Decision Research and Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Michigan. He studies human judgment, decision making, and risk analysis. Dr. Slovic publishes extensively and maintains research relationships with colleagues throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. He is past President of the Society for Risk Analysis and in 1991 received its Distinguished Contribution Award. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. In 1993 he received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association.

Lydia Dotto is a freelance writer who has specialized in science and environmental issues for 23 years. She has authored 10 previous books, including several on environmental issues commissioned by scientific groups and organizations. She is the former science reporter for Canada's national newspaper, Globe and Mail, and former executive editor of Canadian Science News Service. She has won numerous awards, including the Royal Canadian Institute's Sandford Fleming Medal for outstanding achievement in promoting understanding of science among the Canadian public.

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