Geology and Nuclear Waste Policy


The radioactive waste generated by commercial nuclear power plants in this country will be buried at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. This nuclear garbage dump is intended to keep the radioactive waste isolated from human contact for at least 10,000 years. Because of the backlog of spent fuel wastes from nuclear power plants Congress has directed that the waste site be built and licensed as soon as possible. The safety standards for the waste site are to insure that people twenty kilometers from the site will not be exposed for the next 10,000 years.

In 1998 the Department of Engergy completed a system performance assessment for the waste site and reported that there were no show stoppers, no insurmountable problems to building the site. Work proceeds toward a license application as a repository in 2001.

However, it is not clear that the performance assessment would have recognized a show stopper if there were one. By the same token, the uncertainties in the assessment are so great that a safe repository might not be recognized. Professor Rodney Ewing has argued in Science magazine that uncertainty about the long term performance of the waste site could be reduced, and confidence in it increased, by applying the idea of multiple barriers to the assessment.

We spoke with Professor Ewing about his ideas to improve the saftey of the Yucca Mountain repository.

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