Scientific Hung Jury

Pro-Nuke Panel Can't Agree on Dump's Safety

by Daniel Hirsch

The long-awaited report by the National Academy of Sciences' committee on the proposed Ward Valley radioactive waste facility has finally been released, and it contains some surprises. Chief among them is the disclosure that the nuclear waste dump at Beatty, Nevada, a virtual twin of the one proposed for Ward Valley, has already leaked and contaminated ground water. That facility uses the same design proposed for Ward Valley (unlined trenches, impermissible even for municipal dumps), has a similar arid climate and deep water table, and was run by the same operator (US Ecology, a name that would give George Orwell a chuckle).

US Ecology operated failed nuclear dumps in Kentucky and Illinois; the Kentucky dump is now a Superfund site. In each case it was predicted that the radioactive waste would stay put for centuries; in both cases it migrated within a decade or so. But US Ecology told Californians not to worry, those past failures were in the humid East and its arid site at Beatty, Nevada, had supposedly been problem-free.

US Ecology's computer models claim that it would take thousands of years for radioactivity to migrate from unlined trenches at Ward Valley to ground water. It made the identical claim for its Beatty site. The question of whether it is safe to let US Ecology build another dump, this time eighteen miles from the Colorado River, has now been empirically answered by the revelation that its arid Nevada dump, essentially identical to that proposed for Ward Valley, contaminated ground water within 20 years of opening.

The Academy study, in rather a backhand way, also established the risk to the Colorado River. It confirmed four of the five possible hydrologic pathways to the river identified by Dr. Howard Wilshire and his colleagues at usgs. It then calculated the effect of five ounces of plutonium239 (Pl239) eventually reaching the Colorado River, resulting in concentrations below permissible levels. If five hundred ounces (311/4 pounds) of plutonium were dumped at Ward Valley, it said, the concentrations in the river would approach regulatory limits.

However, US Ecology's License Application, as revised, estimates about 120 pounds of Pl239 would go to Ward Valley -- indeed, it has already dumped about 100 pounds each at two of its existing "low level" dumps. That amount would result in concentrations well above permissible levels should it reach the Colorado.

Perhaps the most important of the panel's many recommendations for further work is that additional measurements for tritium be made beneath the Ward Valley surface. Such radionuclides from atom bomb test fallout serve to trace how fast radioactivity from the waste trenches would travel. Tritium has been found 100 feet below the surface, indicating a migration rate of mere decades.

The Academy panel rejected US Ecology's explanation, that the tritium moved there in the gas phase, and recommended new measurements be made to determine if the initial readings were valid. If they are, the entire safety of the site is in question. The key fight now will be about whether those measurements, said to take a few months, will finally occur, and if so, if it will be before a decision is made to transfer the land. US Ecology has resisted taking the measurements for years. If tritium is found again, the project would be dead.

The composition of the Ward Valley panel and other study panels of the Academy's Board on Radioactive Waste Management has been widely criticized, not just by California officials but also by officials in Nevada and New York. Concerns include stacking the committees with people with ties to the nuclear industry, while excluding scientists with environmental associations or perspectives. In the case of the Ward Valley panel, thirteen of the panel members were associated with the nuclear industry, two were "neutral" (consultants both to nuclear and environmental communities) and two had no prior involvement. This skewing of the panel also resulted in wide criticism when the panel refused to hear formal presentations by scientists associated with opponents of the Ward Valley proposal, after giving days of time to US Ecology and the Department of Health Services in defense of the project.

Even with this takeover of the study panel by people tied to the nuclear enterprise, the panel could not reach agreement on the key issue -- likelihood of radioactive material migrating to ground water. It is extremely rare for an Academy study to be issued with even one minority report; in this case there were two. Indeed, of 35 reports issued over the previous 38 years by the Academy's Board on Radioactive Waste Management or its predecessor committees, the Ward Valley report is the first where consensus was not reached.

The Academy panel is thus a hung jury. In this country, we don't execute people when the jury is deadlocked. No less should that be the case here, with large numbers of lives at stake over many generations should Ward Valley leak like every other nuclear dump.

Daniel Hirsch is President of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angles public interest group opposing Ward Valley. He is the former Director of the Program on Nuclear Policy at the University of Santa Cruz.