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Burying Uncertainty: Risk and the Case Against Geological Disposal of Nuclear Waste

K. S. Shrader-Frechette
Copyright Date: 1993
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  • Book Info
    Burying Uncertainty
    Book Description:

    Shrader-Frechette looks at current U.S. government policy regarding the nation's high-level radioactive waste both scientifically and ethically. What should be done with our nation's high-level radioactive waste, which will remain hazardous for thousands of years? This is one of the most pressing problems faced by the nuclear power industry, and current U.S. government policy is to bury "radwastes" in specially designed deep repositories. K. S. Shrader-Frechette argues that this policy is profoundly misguided on both scientific and ethical grounds. Scientifically-because we cannot trust the precision of 10,000-year predictions that promise containment of the waste. Ethically-because geological disposal ignores the rights of present and future generations to equal treatment, due process, and free informed consent. Shrader-Frechette focuses her argument on the world's first proposed high-level radioactive waste facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Analyzing a mass of technical literature, she demonstrates the weaknesses in the professional risk-assessors' arguments that claim the site is sufficiently safe for such a plan. We should postpone the question of geological disposal for at least a century and use monitored, retrievable, above-ground storage of the waste until then. Her message regarding radwaste is clear: what youcan'tseecanhurt you.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91396-7
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. 1 The Riddle of Nuclear Waste
    (pp. 1-10)

    Italians have not been able to protect Renaissance art treasures for even as long asonethousand years.¹ Egyptians have not been able to protect the tombs of the Pharaohs for even as long asfourthousand years, and some of the graves were looted within centuries. Yet, we in this generation have an obligation to protect our nuclear wastes for more thantenthousand years—a period longer than recorded history.

    It is ironic that we have been civilized for only about 10,000 years, yet we face the task of protecting high-level radwastes, a dangerous and “massive source of...

  6. 2 Understanding the Origins of the Problem
    (pp. 11-26)

    Radioactive wastes have been called the Achilles Heel of the nuclear industry because after nearly half a century of nuclear technology there is still controversy surrounding how to deal with them. Perhaps because they are worried about human error and about scientists’ claims to store waste safely in perpetuity, citizens and members of environmental groups have been in turmoil over the issue of nuclear-waste storage. Almost everywhere, they have proclaimed NIMBY: “Not In My Backyard.” From Taiwan and Argentina to Japan and Siberia, citizens have protested plans to build nuclear-waste facilities.¹ In the United States, several groups have charged in...

  7. 3 Reliance on Value Judgments in Repository Risk Assessment
    (pp. 27-38)

    In a recent book, I. S. Roxburgh, a proponent of geological disposal of high-level radioactive waste, optimistically outlined the characteristics of evaporites, crystalline rocks, and argillaceous rocks as repositories. Next he spent several chapters enthusiastically discussing sub-seabed disposal, groundwater movement, and physicochemical processes that retard radionuclide movement. After a lengthy and detailed scientific argument for permanent geological disposal, Roxburgh admitted that the three main methods of repository risk assessment (expert judgments, fault trees, and simulations) are “to a large extent reliant upon qualitative judgements.”¹ How could one admit both that assessment of repository risks is largely aqualitativeenterprise, even...

  8. 4 Subjective Estimates of Repository Risks
    (pp. 39-74)

    Claude Bernard, the foremost French physiologist of his day, wisely warned that “true science teaches us to doubt.”¹ It teaches us, as the previous chapter argued, that all science and risk assessment rely on methodological value judgments about the merit of factors such as experimental designs, theories, standards of proof, observations, explanations, curve-fits, and estimates. However, one measure of the degree to which we should doubt any particular scientific conclusion is the extent to which it relies on hidden, unjustified, or controversial value judgments about methods. If a conclusion is extremely sensitive to some methodological value judgment, then it is...

  9. 5 Subjective Evaluations of Repository Risks
    (pp. 75-102)

    Recent risk assessments done by the Ford Foundation-Mitre Corporation and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) used identical data—probabilities and consequence estimates—associated with the risk of commercial nuclear fission reactors. Yet their risk evaluations were contradictory. The Ford Foundation assessment recommended use of nuclear energy, and the UCS study advised against it. How could two studies that agreed on the probabilistic and scientific data reach opposed conclusions? The answer is that the two studies used different methodological rules, different methodological value judgments at the third (risk-evaluation) stage of assessment. The Ford group used the Bayesian expected-utility rule, whereas...

  10. 6 Problematic Inferences in in Assessing Repository Risks
    (pp. 103-159)

    In 1962, scientists calculated the risks associated with a proposed U.S. site for shallow land burial of transuranics and low-level radioactive wastes. Representatives from industry and their consultants praised the (Maxey Flats) Kentucky location and calculated that if plutonium were buried there, it would take twenty-four thousand years to migrate one-half inch. They said that “the possibility of subsurface migration offsite is nonexistent.”¹ More conservative assessors and geologists—from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency—claimed that it would take many hundreds of years for the radionuclides to migrate offsite.² The migration rate is important, because Maxey...

  11. 7 Uncertainty: An Obstacle to Geological Disposal
    (pp. 160-181)

    The authors of a recent U.S. Geological Survey study of the Yucca Mountain site, proposed as the first permanent high-level radwaste repository in both the United States and the world, warned that site “data are not sufficient to predict accurately rates of [ground]-water movement and travel times.”¹ One question raised by the USGS warning is whether the Yucca Mountain predictions, although inaccurate, areaccurate enoughfor us to build the repository. Indeed, this is the same question raised by the three previous chapters. Are the controversial methodological value judgments and questionable inferences in the repository risk estimates and evaluations significant?...

  12. 8 Equity: An Obstacle to Geological Disposal
    (pp. 182-212)

    Nuclear proponent Alvin Weinberg described the problem of radioactive wastes as a “Faustian bargain.” In return for the present benefits of atomic energy, we must export the risks of nuclear. waste to future generations.¹ Since we have already made the Faustian bargain, we cannot turn back; we cannot avoid dealing with radioactive waste already generated. We can, however, choose better or worse ways to live out the consequences of our pact with Mephistopheles. Is permanent geological disposal of radwaste our best option? The National Research Council of the United States National Academy of Sciences affirmed in 1990 that it is,...

  13. 9 An Alternative to Permanent Geological Disposal
    (pp. 213-252)

    In 1952, four years before the United States began commercial generation of electricity by nuclear fission, James Conant—Roosevelt’s wartime advisor on atomic energy and later president of Harvard University—predicted that the world would turn away from nuclear power because the problem of waste disposal would prove to be intractable. In 1957, a U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel issued a similar warning: “Unlike the disposal of any other type of waste, the hazard related to radioactive wastes is so great that no element of doubt should be allowed to exist regarding safety.”¹ Another NAS panel expressed reservations...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 253-328)
  15. Index of Names
    (pp. 329-336)
  16. Index of Subjects
    (pp. 337-347)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 348-348)