Kai Erikson, E. William Colglazier, and Gilbert F. White(1)

Kai Erikson is a professor of sociology at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. E. William Colglazier is Executive Officer of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D. C. Gilbert F. White is distinguished professor emeritus of geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. This paper was originally published in the Fall, 1994 issue of the journal Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy.

During the past decade, the United States has been investigating the feasibility of developing a permanent geological repository for high-level nuclear waste. Similar investigations are under way in other countries, but the U.S. effort--now focused by order of Congress on Yucca Mountain, Nevada--has a magnitude and complexity all its own.

The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 and its 1987 amendments authorized Nevada to conduct its own research on the social and economic consequences of siting a repository at Yucca Mountain. In 1986, the state hired an experienced group of specialists--the Nevada Study Team--to conduct those studies, and shortly thereafter, it created the Technical Review Committee to evaluate and help shape that work.

The main socioeconomic findings of the Nevada Review Team are that ( 1 ) the American people generally and the people of Nevada particularly are deeply apprehensive of radioactive waste; (2) the American people generally and the people of Nevada particularly have little confidence in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) or in other federal agencies involved in the management of nuclear waste; (3) Nevada's economy could be adversely affected by the siting of a high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain; and (4) the repository program is handicapped by uncertainties, not only in long-term estimates of the repository's impact, but in short-term estimates as well.

Dread. Extensive surveys commissioned by the state of Nevada have confirmed what a growing body of researchers across the country have suggested for some time: that the possibility of exposure to radiation evokes considerably more dread than other hazards that may be more dangerous.

Some technical circles regard this fear as irrational and thus feel it need not be taken into account when hard data are laid out on the table. Feelings, however, shape behavior, and for that reason, data about them are as hard and real as anything else in the natural world.

The ability to evoke dread in human beings must be counted as one of the key properties of radioactive wastes, not just a passing fact about human life; thus, research on why people respond as they do to radioactivity is critical. Not to know that essential fact about nuclear wastes is like not knowing their half lives, their thermal qualities, or any of their other physical and chemical characteristics.

Little Confidence. Surveys indicate that people both in Nevada and throughout the country have little confidence in federal agencies generally and in DOE particularly. They distrust official estimates of the danger to health posed by nuclear wastes, and they fear that the risks of accident during the packaging, shipping, and storage of those wastes are high, despite assurances to the contrary.

DOE is well aware of the public's attitudes. As one of its own reports notes: "By any conceivable indicator, the Department rouses little trust and confidence from any sector of the public."(2) The public, moreover, thinks that DOE not only lacks the competence to handle nuclear waste responsibly but the candor to report its own activities. A contributing factor to such feelings in Nevada is the belief that the process by which Yucca Mountain was selected was neither fair nor equitable.

Negativism. Data collected so far suggest that the negative feelings people have toward radioactive wastes may be converted into negative feelings about Nevada if a repository is sited at Yucca Mountain.

Such transference of feelings may turn out to be small in impact or temporary in duration, but it seems clear that (1) there is a deep public concern about nuclear waste and (2) those concerns may cause considerable harm to Nevada's economy if people whom the state counts on as a source of tourism, in-migration, and new industry take their business elsewhere.

Uncertainties. Development of a nuclear waste repository would be an unprecedented undertaking for humankind. Providing reliable projections about the near-term socioeconomic impacts of such a facility will be difficult enough, given that we have no past experience to draw on. But the prospect of providing assurances about the security of the repository for the thousands of years it will take the wastes to decay is simply staggering.

Given the potential for human error, the technology's novelty, and the extraordinary time horizon--twice the length of recorded human history--it is inevitable that the actual impacts (physical, biological, social, psychological, and economic) will differ from the best projections. Thus, the surest finding likely to emerge from current research is that the most important questions about the repository's impacts cannot be answered with even minimal assurance.


A major problem of DOE's research efforts has been the failure to adequately consider human behavior and emotions in thinking about long-range problems of security in a geological repository. The human dimension apparently has been given short shrift because it is so difficult to predict or change, but that is why it should be at the center of attention.

The requirement to think in terms of thousands of years has proved daunting to many who are asked to assess how such matters as geology, water tables, climate, and volcanic activity will affect the future of a mined repository. If the thousands-of-years requirement is problematic in those fields, it is even more so in the case of human behavior.

It is difficult to predict what human beings will do a year from now, hard even to guess what they will do a decade from now, and preposterous to predict what they will do a hundred or a thousand years from now.

The story of the next one hundred, one thousand, and ten thousand years will be the story of what human beings do as well as the story of what climate, water tables, and seismic movements do. The DOE Site Characterization Plan of 1988 and the newer Early Site Suitability Evaluation Report of 1992 commissioned by DOE together devote just a handful of sentences to how human beings may react to the presence of a repository. The only discussion in either document under the heading "human intrusion" deals with "unintentional intrusion," which is the problem of people blundering into the waste without knowing the risk they face.

Two solutions are proposed for that problem. The first is to mark the spot with monuments so impressive that no one can mistake the dangers that lurk there. The second is to locate the repository underground in a spot so unfavorable that no one would be tempted to drill into the formation to extract minerals or water that may be located nearby.

Such thinking is based on the assumption that human outlooks and technologies will remain essentially the same for the life of the waste. Yet who knows what resources will count as "valuable" several hundred years from now? Uranium, to offer an ironic example, had no known uses as recently as 100 years ago.

Furthermore, how can one assume that 1,000 feet of tuff--or salt or basalt or granite--will pose the same obstacle to people a few centuries from now as it does to today's population? The very use of the word "drill," a creation of our own technological age, fixes the discussion in time, as the word "dig" would have done two centuries ago.

For example, a 1988 DOE report speaks about "compiling data to determine the anticipated drillhole density, borehole diameter, and depths of the drillholes over the next 10,000 years in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain."(3) Such comments often pass for reasoned scientific conclusions, but they make the reckless assumption that people living in the next millennia will be limited to the technological resources of the late 20th century.

Obviously, we cannot predict what human beings will invent in the future, but the rate of technological change has accelerated so rapidly in the last 200 years that it seems foolhardy even to try to anticipate what might happen a decade or a century ahead, never mind a millennium. How hard is it to imagine equipment that not only can penetrate rock but remove large chunks of it from sites such as Yucca Mountain at many times the speed that today's technology permits?

To complicate the matter further, we have good reason to suppose that advances in human technology will have so great an impact on the natural world that geology, seismology, and hydrology will have to draw on the social as much as the physical sciences. One does not require technical credentials to predict that the ability to induce changes in climate, reshape land contours millions of years in the making, and rechannel underground water flows will be possible before long--certainly before 10,000 years have passed.

When technical specialists speak of "isolating" waste "from the biosphere" or "from the accessible environment," they use expressions that reflect our technological age. The biosphere's outer edges are set, not by the physical universe, but by the biological activity within it. The range of our own species within that universe has expanded enormously in recent times--for example, into the sea and beyond the atmosphere.

Moreover, one might want to question the logic by which water and mineral resources that are a part of our Earth are thought to be "out of the environment." For that matter, one might want to ask how a region of Earth we can reach even now with a simple drill can be described as "inaccessible."

However we describe them, materials placed in an underground chamber 1,000 feet below the surface of Nevada are still very much a part of our world. What are the odds, for example, that human beings a few hundred or a few thousand years from now will use underground regions for storage, transportation, or even shelter? Today's specialists might assign that scenario a low probability, but even now people store a great deal underground, routinely transport materials such as natural gas and oil through subterranean pipelines, and move passengers by rail hundreds of feet below the surface.

The term "disposal," which is widely used in discussions of nuclear-waste management, may also be misleading. To dispose means to get rid of. We do not know how to do that, and may never know. So the problem of waste management is that of determining where and under what circumstances we can best store such volatile materials. Indeed, when one begins to think that way, expressions such as "isolating wastes from the accessible environment" assume an odd ring.

The most important point to be made, however, is this: That one generation of human beings decides to store poisons of extraordinary power in underground vaults may affect the imaginations, rechannel the energies, and provoke the creativities of the generations to follow. Human beings do not just act. They react.

To site a repository is to change human sensibilities in ways that are impossible to predict, which raises new speculations. What are the odds, for example, that those powerful wastes, marked with massive monuments, will one day become an object of religious awe? Or that hostile persons will view those 70,000 metric tons of nuclear waste as a potential weapon, deep in enemy territory, needing only to be activated by some ingenious new contrivance?

We do not know how to answer those questions or even phrase them confidently. That is why we should accord them special respect and move ahead with extreme caution. "Human beings have gotten pretty good at looking into deep space," says a shrewd consultant to DOE, "but we are really no good at looking into deep time."(4)


The credibility of DOE and of most of the other players in the nation's nuclear waste management program has declined sharply in recent years. That much is clear from research done in Nevada and elsewhere and even from DOE's own readings of the national mood.

DOE, however, has been given an impossible assignment. The agency is being asked to take tens of thousands of metric tons of the most hazardous materials ever created and, in the face of continuing opposition, to entomb them so that they will do little harm for thousands of years.

Even to set that project into motion, it must certify the safety of canisters and other storage equipment not yet built, the soundness of transportation routes not yet selected, the safety of technologies not yet designed or developed, and the integrity of a particular geological formation in the absence of a comparable level of study of other geological media.

Moreover, DOE has been subject to political processes that have time frames of two, four, or six years, the rhythms of our electoral democracy. The limited terms of office holders continually disturb whatever reliability DOE's policies, promises, and activities may otherwise have. It is difficult to think in terms of thousands of years or hundreds of generations when politicians and their constituents think in terms of two-, four-, or six-year tenures in office. Subordination of the broader technical aspects of radioactive-waste management to such short-term considerations has helped undermine confidence in DOE.

As a result, the agency often has found itself in a position where politics not only sets technical agendas but influences technical research. DOE has been required by law to answer unanswerable questions, imagine unimaginable futures, and create stable structures, institutions, and schedules in an inherently uncertain human environment. It often has been called on to present strategies that serve an immediate purpose but cannot be defended technically in the long run.

All of this has taken place in a political climate where distrust of public officials and public institutions is endemic. Trust and distrust tend to be contagious--the latter more so than the former--and when the contagion has spread so far as it has here, it is difficult to see how it can be reversed.

How can any national high-level nuclear waste repository be built democratically in a political climate as distrustful as data show the American political arena to be right now?

The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendment Act of 1987 identifies Yucca Mountain as the only site to be evaluated and directs that it become the nation's first civilian repository--"unless," as one commentator put it aptly, "some fatal flaw is discovered." We are no longer being asked whether the site is the best of several alternatives but whether it can be made to serve. This strategy, in turn, means that those studying the site are more or less invited to look for disqualifying conditions rather than desirable ones.

The selection process thus resembles a "show cause" hearing more than it does a scientific inquiry, and it poses a major problem of credibility because such a procedure makes it appear that DOE, acting for Congress, knows where it is going before it gathers data that is intended to show the agency the direction in which it should head.

The Nuclear Age is only 50 years old; yet it has created wastes that will be dangerous for millennia. DOE estimates that it will cost more than $6 billion simply to evaluate a site in which to store them. Given the immense advances in nuclear technology over the past few years, would it not make sense to take advantage of evolving knowledge and apply some of those funds to research wider options?


Despite the best intentions of Congress to create a sense of fairness and collaboration in the selection of a nuclear waste repository, the siting debate has been staged in such a way that interested parties have been required to confront one another as adversaries.

As a result, each contending party gathers its own data, develops its own arguments, and consults its own experts. This process involves tremendous duplication of effort that, for one thing, drains already limited reserves of money, energy, and good will. It also leaves the impression that each contending party is developing not only its own case but its own truth.

Adversarial debates always seem to shift to a plane on which each side looks for unspoken motives in the arguments of the other. The federal government sees itself as trustee of the nation's energy future, and, peering through that lens, is inclined to see local people and local governments opposing them as parochial, ill-informed, and insensitive to the nation's welfare. Locals, meanwhile, see themselves as trustees of poorly understood and lightly defended territories or ways of life. Viewing the world from that vantage point, they are inclined to see the acts of the federal government as indifferent, unjust, and insensitive to local needs.

The debate then shifts into the realm of high principle. It no longer focuses on the suitability of a particular site for a particular use but upon such matters as justice, democracy, environmental rights, local versus national prerogatives, aesthetic versus economic values, and even religion. When issues escalate to high principle, they are no longer objective matters that can be resolved through fact finding and a discussion of costs and benefits.

Matters of principle are always more difficult to resolve than matters of fact. Contrary outlooks unfold, not only from opposing interests, but from differing world views, differing ways of calculating risk, and sometimes differing ways of perceiving nature itself.

Failure of a powerful authority to take seriously or to consider respectfully a local community's understanding of the world may be perceived by citizens of that community as a challenge to their fundamental understanding of reality. For a community to have its basic conception of the nature of things disregarded may be so alienating that it leaves no common ground on which the authority and community can stand and no common language by which they can converse.


An increasing number of people with impressive scientific credentials have concluded that the nation need not be in a hurry to move high-level nuclear wastes into deep underground vaults. John Cantlon, chairman of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, notes:

"Most other countries facing the same challenge have a much more relaxed schedule. There are no compelling technical reasons why operations must start in 2010."(5)

If people like Cantlon are even partially correct, then the question about our haste becomes political, social, economic, and legal rather than technical.

Proponents of nuclear power hope that a crisp solution to the waste problem will breathe new life into a lagging industry. Public officials from districts with large inventories of spent fuel hope that those materials will soon be moved to a distant repository. Government agencies and congressional committees with responsibilities for nuclear energy hope that decisive action might mute anti-nuclear voices and give the government the appearance of being back in control of events.

The rush to burial, then, may have more to do with immediate political and economic considerations than with the dangers of the material to be entombed. Discussions about the need for quick solutions thus should be understood as stemming in part from a state of mind, and it is crucial that the state of mind not be mistaken for a scientific conclusion.

The major question that needs to be asked now is this: Does the nation have satisfactory technical reasons for thinking that deep geological entombment, put into practice as soon as possible, is the best way to protect the public welfare into the foreseeable future? There are no data that permit one to say yes with even a trace of assurance. That being so, to move with unnecessary dispatch toward a solution that limits human options without necessarily improving human prospects only compounds the problem.

The principle that should guide policy under conditions of high uncertainty is to preserve as much flexibility as possible. Irreversible options should not be chosen unless there are no viable alternatives.


For all of these reasons, the government should relax its single-minded focus on irreversible geological burial and turn to some form of secure storage that allows both continuous monitoring and retrieval, along with continued research of long-term options.

By its nature, this solution cannot be regarded as permanent. But it is the wisest stratagem our present age can devise because, in the face of all the doubts and uncertainties that now attend nuclear waste management, it maximizes flexibility and keeps options open.

Federal policy since President Carter's message to Congress of February 1980 has been to "resolve" as far as possible that "civilian waste-management problems shall not be deferred to future generations." Deep geological burial, at first glance, looks like a way to reduce the burden on the future, because, after all, it "removes" the wastes "from the accessible environment" and solves the problem once and for all.

That entombment, ironically, does precisely the reverse. It leaves future generations in charge of tens of thousands of metric tons of the most dangerous waste imaginable, while making it technologically difficult for them to deal with that problem.

We cannot promise our own children--never mind those who follow them hundreds or thousands of years hence--that the wastes will be safe. So long as that is so, we may not be taking the problem out of their hands so much as we are taking the solution out of their hands, in effect making it as hard as we can for them to protect themselves.


1. This article is based in part on a 1993 statement by the Yucca Mountain Socioeconomic Project's Technical Review Committee. In addition to the three listed authors, other committee members include: Michael S. Bronzini, Bruce Dohrenwend, Reed Hansen, Allen V. Kneese, Richard Moore, Edith B. Page, and Roy A. Rappaport. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of the institutions for whom the authors work.

2. Final Report of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Task Force on Radioactive Waste Management (Washington, DC: Nov. 1993), p. 34.

3. Site Characterization Plan: Yucca Mountain Site, Nevada Research and Development Area (Washington, DC: DOE/RW-0199, Dec. 1988).

4. Martin Pasqualetti, quoted in William Poole, "Gambling with the Future,"Sierra (Sept./Oct. 1992), p. 55.

5. "Interview with John Cantlon, NWTRB chairman," The HLW Focus: Exchange Publications, June 1992, p. 23.

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