Socioeconomic Studies of High-Level Nuclear Waste Disposal


G. F. White, M. S. Bronzini, E. W. Colglazier, B. Dohrenwend, K. Erikson, R. Hansen, A. V. Kneese, R. Moore, E. B. Page, and R. A. Rappaport

NOTE: This summary of the Nevada studies was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Volume 91, pp. 10786 - 10789, November, 1994. It was contributed by Gilbert F. White, May 23, 1994.

The socioeconomic investigations of possible impacts of the proposed repository for high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, have been unprecedented in several respects. They bear on the public decision that sooner or later will be made as to where and how to dispose permanently of the waste presently at military weapons installations and that continues to accumulate at nuclear power stations. No final decision has yet been made. There is no clear precedent from other countries. The organization of state and federal studies is unique. The state studies involve more disciplines than any previous efforts. They have been carried out in parallel to federal studies and have pioneered in defining some problems and appropriate research methods. A recent annotated bibliography provides interested scientists with a compact guide to the 178 published reports, as well as to relevant journal articles and related documents.

The interdisciplinary investigations of socioeconomic aspects of proposed disposal of high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, NV, address problems of technical and scientific analysis of unprecedented complexity while employing methods hitherto untried. The central problem is that of designing safe, permanent storage for the steadily growing quantity of spent fuel from the nation's 110 nuclear power reactors and for the radioactive materials remaining at installations for the production of nuclear weapons. The spent fuel currently is stored temporarily in pools at the reactor sites. The military materials are retained temporarily at production sites. Some of the materials are expected to remain radioactive for 100,000 to 1,000,000 years, and large uncertainties exist as to the effects on human health and safety. There is no clear precedent for solution from another country.

Because Yucca Mountain was selected in 1987 as the tentative disposal site by a highly political process and without comparison with other possible sites, or indication of what will be done if Yucca Mountain is not approved, and because there has been heavy pressure to begin getting the waste into permanent storage by 1998, there has been widespread interest in the consequences for public safety and well being. The decision has generated the largest inquiry into the feasibility of any action that Congress has ever proposed. The outlay for all types of studies already has reached more than two billion dollars, and a decision to proceed or not proceed remains at least several years off. In these circumstances the studies of possible social and economic consequences may have special significance for a final decision. They also deserve attention because they explore new methods and a unique organization of science for appraising a massive human intervention into the environment.

This review sketches briefly the background for the socioeconomic investigations, comments upon the organizational innovations and problems they have encountered, and reports a selection of the major findings. It does not offer judgments as to appropriate public policy or as to the quality and suitability of the activities of other research groups-- governmental or nongovernmental. It is intended to alert a wider audience among the scientific community to the availability of the diverse set of studies and to a few issues relating to organization for such research.


Although the problem of devising an appropriate means of disposal for high-level nuclear waste to protect the national welfare has been a matter of scientific and political concern since the first production of such waste(1), this problem did not become a major focus of public attention until the enactment by Congress of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) of 1982(2). That act gave the Department of Energy (DOE) the responsibility to develop an underground repository that would be in operation by 1998. Meanwhile, the waste would continue to be stored temporarily on the surface. Three possible repository sites were to be investigated, and when one was selected, application would be made to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a license to build. Extensive studies soon were under way, and in 1986 sites for further study were designated in Nevada, Texas, and Washington. There was no model to follow from other countries(3).

In 1987 the NWPA was amended to limit the investigation to one site-- Yucca Mountain--and to establish a Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board to review the program. In the Congressional votes on the legislation only the senators and representatives from Nevada dissented. Investigations were to be primarily by DOE, but allocation of some funds to the state of Nevada was authorized, so it could continue oversight and research work. Counties contiguous to Nye County were designated as affected local governments, eligible for funds to participate in the study program.


Federal funds were first made available through DOE in 1982 to host states for oversight and original research in key sectors, such as socioeconomic impact assessment. The state of Nevada responded by creating the Nuclear Waste Project Office (NWPO), which, in turn, arranged for appropriate studies. This was done by giving administrative authority to a private consulting firm that undertook studies, either by its own personnel or through contracts with other groups--academic or consulting.

At the same time the NWPO appointed a Technical Review Committee to provide evaluation of the design of each study and later of the findings, as those became available in draft form. The Technical Review Committee, composed of the authors of this review, offered critical comments on the proposals and reports of contractors but did not associate itself with any of the products. It advised without joining in any of the study activity, and the NWPO decided what, in the light of that advice, the state would undertake or publish.

The design and completion of studies was complicated by uncertain relations with agencies having similar aims in at least three directions. The DOE staff was present at committee meetings and was aware of the state's activities but did not exercise approval or disapproval of specific studies. In turn, the state did not join in approval or disapproval of the federal investigations. No formal cooperation was involved in any of the studies.

To deal with affected local and citizen groups, the state had an advisory committee from appropriate counties, municipalities, and others, such as Native Americans, that was consulted on both design and findings. This relationship was complicated when in 1988 the DOE began directly dividing the funds for Nevada studies with several counties that then set up their own investigations.

The situation was complicated still further when the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board conducted its own reviews of the DOE studies and of other work it considered relevant, such as foreign experience, but it did not directly evaluate research done by the state.

More recently, a committee was appointed by the National Research Council in response to a Congressional directive in 1992 to review the scientific and technical basis for health and safety standards to be considered by the Environment Protection Agency in making recommendations to the NRC. That committee held public meetings and was open to and invited comments from federal, state, and local agencies but had no formal arrangement with them.

Thus, the Nevada studies have been basically independent of the parallel federal studies; this assured that the design and findings are not unduly constrained by the other agencies. It also meant that opportunities for collaboration in design and execution were largely ignored, and reassessment was in order.

Publication of Findings

In 1993, consultants for Nevada prepared an annotated guide to the studies completed to that date. This guide provides reference to each of the 178 reports that had become available(4). These include documents prepared principally by investigators at Coopers and Lybrand, Mountain West, Decision Research, Planning Information Corporation, Latir Associates, Arizona State University, Clark University, University of Colorado, Duke University, University of Nevada, University of Pennsylvania, Utah State University, and University of Wisconsin. It also provides reference to about 55 separate documents published elsewhere and 54 papers presented at meetings and conferences.

To provide a sample of some of the major conclusions reported in those publications we point out one or more significant findings under 14 categories.

Description of Tentative Repository Design

Basic to many estimates of the probable effects of an unprecedented project is a detailed description of precisely what would be undertaken. This includes estimates of the national waste management program and the Nevada program in terms of containers, modes of emplacement of the waste, and timing of action. Because the final design at Yucca Mountain has not yet been proposed, there can be no fully satisfactory statement of expected construction and management. To assist studies that meanwhile are obliged to assume project characteristics, the existing proposals were summarized, and uncertainties as to potentially serious conditions or events that might cause deleterious effects were identified. A computerized simulation model was constructed to convert fundamental assumptions into detailed project characteristics(5). This model thus permits interested parties to explore alternative possibilities and contingencies with a wide range of variables and linkages.


With the use of the standard regional economic model index (REMI) for assessment of Western energy and resource development, a base was established to monitor economic and fiscal relationships in major areas in southern Nevada(6). These relationships included employment, population composition, land use, government expenditures, government revenues, and property values. To this, detailed studies were added for sectors of special importance: the dominant sector of visitors and gaming, tourist-recreation activities(7), retirement migration, the federal weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site, and Nellis Air Force Base. Although discontinued for financial reasons in 1989, these studies provide the baseline opportunity for future monitoring of the economy as it may be affected by possible work on a repository. The visitor-gaming sector dominates Nevada's economy, especially Las Vegas and Clark County, and impacts on that activity could be highly significant.

State Agencies, State Government, and Intergovernment Relations

A unique mode of analysis was developed to describe the complex system of government facilities and services in southern Nevada. Inventories were made of local public systems conditions. Current local ability to absorb impacts was assessed, and information systems were developed to assist in ongoing monitoring(8); this enables estimates of possible effects of repository activity on those governments.

It became clear to all concerned that federal-state-local relationships had been deteriorating even before 1987 Their respective roles are not cooperative and well defined. More than half of the appointed state and local officials, interviewed were giving >30% of their time to repository-related issues(9). None of those reporting believed the DOE could be trusted to keep its promises to them. Many believed a repository would affect their gaming and tourist industries adversely but that the repository finally would be sited in Nevada. Arrangements for interaction among the various government jurisdictions remained incomplete.


Nevada's state-local revenue structure was described with the hope that the possible revenue consequences of a repository program might be projected, but Nevada does not yet have a reliable tool to go beyond a 1- or 2-year budget cycle. Those conditions are rare because Nevada has no state or local income taxes. Model systems were developed to permit analysis of state and local revenue sources and the linkages between revenue and expenditures. Most revenues come from visitor, gaming, and mining activity. Revenues from other sources do not cover costs(10).

National, Regional, and Nevada State Surveys

At least 16 surveys of national, state, and local populations were conducted to sample public attitudes, opinions, and behavior with regard to high-level nuclear waste disposal(11) [ref. 11 (a sample; all surveys summarized in ref. 9)]. These ranged in coverage from small communities in Nye county and selected government and corporate installations to the nation as a whole. The surveys were designed to probe both articulated opinions and many of the social and individual factors possibly accounting for them. National surveys canvassed attitudes, opinions, and possible behavior as those might affect tourism, conventions, migration, and investment. No other part of the country showed a willingness to host a repository, and the surveys probed the possible effects of such views on Nevada if the repository were sited there. Special attention was paid to southern California, Phoenix, and communities within Nevada. The surveys include such questions as who thought federal completion of a Yucca Mountain repository was inevitable, why they believe Nevada residents should have a final say in accepting or rejecting a repository, and how they responded to an expensive advertising campaign by the American Nuclear Energy Council in Nevada in the autumn of 1991.

Social-Cultural: Rural Communities

Combining historical analysis, demographic data, anthropological observations, and key informant interviews, ethnographic surveys were made in selected rural communities in four southern Nevada counties. In each, an effort was made to document the existing social-cultural context, describe local responses to the proposed repository, and identify factors associated with those responses(12). The communities were found to vary greatly among themselves in attitudes and actual or expected behavior. Responses were strongly associated with community context and individual risk perceptions(13). The study evidence, for example, cast doubt on the validity of the "not in my backyard" hypothesis that support for a repository would be stronger in communities located at a distance; the contrary was reported. Residents of communities that had experienced fallout from weapons testing during the 1950s and 1960s were less supportive, but the strongest support was in the three communities nearest the proposed repository.

Urban Area Impacts

Through telephone and in-person surveys and analysis of newspaper reports, ethnographic and participant-observer studies, and focus group and key informant interviews, the attitudes and behavior of residents of the Las Vegas metropolitan area were probed(14). Perceptions of risk were high and varied in distinctive ways. Support for the repository was strongest in the metropolitan area of Las Vegas. The risks of a repository were seen as higher by women than by men and were seen as significantly higher in the 30-39 age group. In contrast to rural areas, urban dwellers placed more emphasis on transportation hazards.

Socio-Cultural: Native American

Investigation of Native American communities--principally the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute--was similar to that for rural communities and included a group in Las Vegas(15). Their economic position was found to be fragile, and while their attitudes toward a repository varied among themselves in a number of ways, and >70% oppose the repository, their objection to any use of their lands for that purpose was categorical. A large proportion believe that high-level nuclear waste cannot be transported safely.

Case Studies

To consider the possible insights to be gained from somewhat analogous situations, case studies were made of two accidents in foreign areas (Goiania and Gorleben), of experience with two DOE waste disposal studies, and cases of the social impacts of hazardous waste management at federal installations (Hanford, Rocky Flats, Fernald), and Love Canal and Centralia(16). By and large, these studies supported the findings from the Yucca Mountain studies and did not generate major challenges. The conclusions with respect to social amplification of risk, trust and distrust of hazards managers, the need for effective participation by state and local representatives, and potential for psychosocial disruption were reinforced.

Risk Assessment, Risk Perception, and Behavior

Critical review was made of the data and analytical methods used by DOE in its assessment of the risks associated with the project. This involved examination of underlying assumptions, the scope of assessment, the handling of uncertainties, gaps in knowledge, and overall coherence. Attention was given to how various hazards may develop, along with a taxonomy of technological hazard. Risk was appraised as it attached to site characterization, transportation, health hazards in transport, preclosure, postclosure, and retrieval.

Among the numerous deficiencies suggested, the principal one was the failure to take adequate account of the amplification of perceived risk by social processes. From examination of factors affecting the ways in which risk is perceived and is related to environmental imagery and how that induces actual behavior, a theory of social amplification was refined(17). This theory outlined a mechanism whereby risk perception could lead to stigmatization of the Southern Nevada region and to adverse impacts. The findings suggest that focusing solely on the probability and magnitude of physical consequences may greatly underestimate the actual socioeconomic impact of an event(18).


A conceptual framework was developed within which the major equity problems involved in the siting, construction, operation, and closure of the proposed repository might be addressed. Two major types of equity were distinguished-- distributional and procedural(19). Limitations in funding prevented the completion of this exercise, but the partial effort suggests a number of respects in which challenges might be made to the procedures of the responsible agencies with respect to both definition and valuation of the equity factors(20).

Trust and the Repository Program

In 1981 an Office of Technology Assessment report had concluded that the level of distrust among concerned parties was the most formidable problem confronting development of a repository(21). In response to that and other studies DOE appointed a task force in 1991 to recommend how it might strengthen public trust.

The Nevada studies addressed this broad question. Through literature review and two major surveys, an attempt was made to discover and measure the factors accounting for public trust and confidence in government management of the repository program(22). Trust was found to be low and to be closely related to risk perception. Out of this broad research a number of possible ways of changing the situation were suggested as meriting further examination by the agencies, including needed research on critical issues(23).

Management and Policy

The policy and management issues are wide-ranging, and their resolution may well determine the outcome of the final decision on the repository. The Nevada studies examined government management as embodied in the policy-making process and organization that shape how decisions are made and how science enters into defining and making them(24). From examination of such tools as compensation and mitigation, it was observed that the environmental policies for repository siting were a significant departure from those applying to other waste siting efforts(25).


In examining possible impacts on socioeconomic conditions from transportation of high-level waste from nuclear plants and military installations to Yucca Mountain, the studies were directed at preliminary plans released by the DOE and were obliged to assume the likely arrangements, having due regard for remaining uncertainty. Those uncertainties were large and had to do principally with the effects of decisions sometime in the future as to the volume and timing of shipments, the precise design of containers that would be used, the physical composition of the waste, the routing and vehicles finally adopted, and other conditions that could affect the safety of populations in areas along whatever routes may be chosen. The findings accordingly identified a range of issues that would need to be resolved before a final risk assessment might be prepared for waste transport and before detailed estimates could be ventured as to likely impacts of the perceived risk in the impacted communities(26). New methodology was tested for characterizing possible transport routes, including measures related to probabilities of accidents of various types and measures of possible consequence severity. Accident rates and history were estimated for each likely route, compensation and mitigation measures were assessed(27), and further research requirements were suggested.


How much further socioeconomic research on repository siting may be undertaken with federal funding beyond the current fiscal period is difficult to foresee(28). DOE might continue its present program and policy. It might undertake to collaborate more closely with state, local, and other scientific groups concerned. Or the Yucca Mountain project might be abandoned or deferred. In any event, the scientific and policy issues related to the siting of a permanent repository, wherever finally designated, seem likely to persist for a long time, and the methods, findings, and organizational issues emerging from the recent and current Yucca Mountain studies will be relevant to further investigations of feasibility for nuclear waste repositories, as well as for other environmental impact studies.

We thank James Flynn and Paul Slovic for comments on an earlier draft.



1. Krauskopf, K. (1990) Science 249,12311232.

2. Mushkatel, A., Pijawka, D., Jones, P. & Ibitayo, N. (1992) Governmental Trust and Risk Perceptions Related to the High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository: Analysis of Survey Results and Focus Groups, Monitoring Reference Database, RP0135.

3. Cook, B. J., Emel, J. L. & Kasperson, R. E. (1992) Policy Stud. Rev. 10, 339366.

4. Yucca Mountain Socioeconomic Study Team (1993) State of Nevada Socioeconomic Studies of Yucca Mountain, 1986-1992: An Annotated Guide (Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV).

5. Planning Information Corporation (1991) Yucca Mountain Repository Scenario System: Background, Summary, and Progress Report, Nevada Monitoring Reference Database, PD0044

6. Mountain West (1988) County Level Comparison of the REMINV FS 53 Model Preliminary Baseline Projections with Other Source Projections, Monitoring Reference Database, ED0011.

7. Planning Information Corporation (1988) Characteristics of the Las Vegas/Clark County Visitor Economy (Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV), NWPO-SE-002-88.

8. Planning Information Corporation (1988) Inventory of System Characteristics (Working Draft), Monitoring Reference Database, CF0005.

9. Flynn, J., Slovic, P., Mertz, C. K. & Toma, J. (1990) Evaluations of Yucca Mountain: Survey Findings About the Attitudes, Opinions, and Evaluations of Nuclear Waste and Yucca Mountain, Nevada (Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV), NWPO-SE-029-90.

10. Planning Information Corporation (1989) Summary of Background Fiscal Data and Analysis for the Nevada Socioeconomic Impact Assessment Study to Date (Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV), NWPO-SE-017-89.

11. Flynn, J., Mertz, C. K. & Slovic, P. (1991) The Autumn 1991 Nevada State Telephone Survey, Monitoring Reference Database, RP0127

12. Little, R. L. & Krannich, R. S. (1989) Impact Assessment Bull. 6, 21-35.

13. Krannich, R., Little, R., Mushkatel, A. & Pijawka, D. (1991) Southern Nevada Residents' Views About the Yucca Mountain High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository and Related Issues: A Comparative Analysis of Urban and Rural Survey Data (Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV), NWPO-SE-038-91.

14. Mushkatel, A., Pijawka, D. & Dantico, M. (1990) Risk-induced Social Impacts: Effects of the Proposed Nuclear Waste Repository on Residents of Las Vegas Metro Area (Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV), NWPO-SE-032-90.

15. Fowler, C., Hamby, M., Rusco, E. & Rusco, M. (1991) Native Americans and Yucca Mountain: A Revised and Updated Summary Report on Research Undertaken Between 1987-91 (Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV), NWPO-SE-039-91, 2 volumes.

16. Freudenburg, W. (1991) in Social Impacts of Hazardous and Nuclear Facilities and Events: Implications for Nevada and the Yucca Mountain High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository (Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV), NWPO-SE-045-92.

17. Kasperson, R. E. (1992) in Social Theories of Risk, eds. Krimsky, S. & Golding, D. (Praeger, New York), pp. 153-178.

18. Emel, J., Kasperson, R., Goble, R. & Renn, O. (1988) Postclosure Risks at the Proposed Yucca Mountain Repository: A Review of Methodological and Technical Issues, Monitoring Reference Database, RA0009.

19. Kasperson, R., Ratick, S., & Renn, O. (1988) A Framework for Analyzing and Responding to Equity Problems Involved in High-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal (Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV), NWPO-SE-019-89.

20. Easterling, D. V. (1992) J. Policy Anal 11, 442-475.

21. U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment (1982) Managing Commercial High-Level Radioactive Waste (Govt. Printing Office, Washington, DC).

22. Slovic, P., Flynn, J. & Layman, M (1991) Science 254, 1603-1607.

23. Flynn, J., Burns, W., Mertz, C. K. & Slovic, P. (1992) Risk Anal. 9, 417-430.

24. Kunreuther, H., Desvousges, W. H., Slovic, P. (1988) Environment 30, 16-20, 30-33.

25. Emel, J., Cook, B. & Kasperson, R. (1989) Risk Management and Organization System for High-Level Radioactive Disposal: Issues and Priorities (Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV), NWPO-SE-008-88.

26. Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects/ Nuclear Waste Project Office (1988) A Report on High-Level Nuclear Waste Transportation: Prepared Pursuant to Assembly Concurrent Resolution no. 8 of the 1987 Legislature (Nuclear Waste Project Office, Carson City, NV), NWPO-TN-001-88.

27. Kunreuther, H., Kleindorfer, P., Richards, K., Desvousges, W., Gregory, R., Slovic, P. & Kasperson, R. (1987) Analysis of Compensation and Mitigation for the Yucca Mountain Socioeconomic Impact Project, Monitoring Reference Database, IM0012.

28. Flynn, J., Kunreuther, H., Kasperson, R. E. & Slovic, P. (1992) Issues Sci. Technol. 8, 42-44.

Return to the Nuclear Waste Project Home Page
State of Nevada
Nuclear Waste Project Office
Capitol Complex
Carson City, NV 89710
(702) 687-3744