The Radwaste Paradox

S c i e n c e , J a n u a r y 7 , 1 9 8 3 , pp. 3 3 - 3 6 . ~ e p r i n t e ?w i t h pe-rnission of copyrignt c l a i m a n t by t h e L i b r a r y o f C o n ~ r ~ s s , a c x q r e s s i o n a l Xesearc:? Service. The Radwaste Paradox Political pressures push for a speeding up of the geologic disposal program, but technical considerations may call for a slowing down Early explorers and serrlm of the Colorado PIateau, in coming to a deep b a t h f u b s valley ~ just cast of what is now the C o l o n d d J t a h state line. w m astonished at how the Dolom River. a triburary of the Colorado. cuts across the valley and thmugh its steep walls af right angles. They d i e d this place "Paradox Valley," and the much larger geologic province in southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado of which the vailey is a psn wm to become known as the Paradox Basin. As it happens. the Paradox Basin is one of the place^ where the U.S. Depvrment of Energy (DOE)is looking for a site for a deepmined reps-. itfor high-level radioactive waste. This seems appropriate4y symbijlic be cause the geologic disposal problem has incrcluingiy taken on the aspert of a pditicai and t d n i c a i conundrum, replete with rcll or seeming contndicxions and Ppndoxes. A cmuai p a d o x is that, while the concept of scquatering long-lived wosta in mined mposilories is aftnctive intuitivefy, the very d o n s made to conlinn the suitability of pmicutar rock formoliom give rise to further unc&nties. af l e u t in the early years of the site invesugations. Overcoming these unccrtaintia, which are arising in every rock type and at virtually every site under investiguion. ta&a time and may in some cases require the stretching out of schedules. But under the d w v t c legislation approved by Congms last month (see box) the present W E schedule for site seieaion and licensing could be acccieraled by more than 2 years. The new law contemplates that. baning certain discretionary exrcnsions. repository constnrcrion will stan as u r i y as 1989. This is 6 yean away and many people in Congress and the nudear industry find it hard to understand why it should take any longer than that to find a suitable site and bcg~nexcavating a mine and getting rid of the waste. The scientific and techn i d questions associated with deep gcolomc disposal of radwaste+spccially heat-generating high-level w a s t e e suffic~entlyspecialized and obscure that for most people it seems that. as the s~yinggoes. "you can't appreciate the problems until you get them." SCIENCE. VOL. 219.7 JANUARY 1W3 Top DOE oUicials have t h e m x l v a sought to push the geoloac disposai p m gmcn to a faster pase than the one DOE was following at the end of the Caner Admmisvntion. "l've tried to see that the schedule is occdented." Deputy k r c u r y of E;nergy Kenneth Davis told Science, adding rhnc a congressional mandate for a still faner schedule "could k heipful." In his view, it is likdy that not just om but several of the sites under invatigauon will be usable. "1 don't see a problem." he said. "My expecsation is that it wiil k a question of which one to choose. not which one is acceptable." has gone funher than any other foreign counvy in its efforts to establish a dwaste repository, the geoloqc investigation has focused exciusiveiy on one rock type. A t , and on one site. the Godeben salt dome of tower Saxony. By contrast. W E . to hedge its bets and to meet the requirements of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). is investigating multiple rock types and multiple sites. Moreover, the sinking of large exploratory shafts at three sites is a prcrcquisite to the filing of a rqmsitory permit application. The shafts will allow lateral entry into and testing of the rock forrnation at the repository horizon. The multipiiciry of sites and rock types in pan reflects a political need to Public health and "spread the misery" by demonstrating safety does not require that no one pan of the nation will be early disposal expcred to bear the ent~reburden of nudear waste disposal. Taken overall. the NWTS p r o m constitutes an enorW E and the nuclear industry'are feel- mous geologic mearch effort: its budget ing pressure from Congress and the pub- is now approaching a quvrer of a biilion lic to demonstrate find disposal of rad- dollars a year and is rising. Funhermore. by vinue of political cirwaste. Public health and safety does not require d y dispoul: indeed. with pas- cumstances. the demands of the NRC sage of time the ndiooctive decay of the and the Natlonai Environmental Policy shorter lived fission products reduces Ac!. and DOE'S own sense of technoiogthe waste's heat and m a k a ultimate dis- icai caution. the depmment is commitposal easier. The pressure to move ted to an elaborate program review procquickly is political and stems from the a s in which the agency not only solicits fact that. with the nucicar enterprise now but pays for kibitzing by outsiders. The in its fourth decade, it is an acute embar- US. G c o l o g ~ dSurvey (USGS). for inrassment that the waste problem has not sunce, has recently been brought into been solved. the program to a far greater extmt than These circumstances seem to have ever before. Similarly, most of the p+ produced what arc in a sense two facets tential repository host states are becomto the geologic disposaI program. One is ing incrcaslngly involved in the review of the diWcdt. time-consuming. brow- promrn plans and data penalnlng to the mopping research and development ef- investigation of sltes withln their boundfort that the W E staff people and con- aries: in some cases these DOE-state m c t o n arc struggling to carry out in the rclationshtps have been golng acnmonlfield. The other is the self-confident. ously, in others more harmoniously. but bnskiy paced program that the nuclear with the exception of Nevada. all of the industry and its supporten in Congress host states have chosen to enter Into and the higher cchelons of DOE see as formal anangemenis of one krnd or anvital to the industry's political needs and other with DOE whereby they arc supultimate survival. posed to recewe projecl ~niormdr~on regThe National Waste Terminal Storage uiariy . ( N W S ) program. as the DOE geoiog~c To find sltes for the two repositones disposal erfon for comrnerciai high-ievei that are expected lo be needed by eartv have waste is known, is large and far-flung. In the next century. ~nvestiwt~ons especially compared to radwaste dispos- been under way for some time in four al programs abroad. In Germany. which different kinds of geoiogic formal~ons~n states: the oid basait lava flows oithe :~iumota Plateau at DOE'S Hanford fa;jiitv in Wasntngton: the weided tud (another ktnd of voicantc rock) at [he Vevada Test Site. nor far from Las Vegas: bedded salt in the Paradox Bastn of southeastern Utah and the Paio Duro Bastn tn the West Texas panhandle: and salt domes in Louisiana and Mississippi. W i t h a year or SO Aeld work is expected to stan in the Recambrian shield grantte of the upper Midwest and in the granite of the Appalachian Mountains. The next major step in the N W S program is to come in 1983 and early 1984 with the sinlung of exploratory shafts at Hanford and the Nevada Test Site. in basalt and tub. and at a salt site to be chosen from among the four salt locat~onswhich DOE still has under investigaaon. One of the t h m sites pckcd six for exploratory shafts will. under the present DOE schedule (which the radwaste icglsiation may accelerate,. be se!ecred for a licenstng appiicatton by 1988. Also. etther at one o i these sttes or af some other, an unlicensed "Test and Evaluation Facility" for ternpoary storage of a few hundred waste cantsten would be buiit and put in operatton by the fall of 1989. A second repository site would be chosen in the a r t y 1990's. But the expcricnce so far at the several sites suggests that the technical and pcb titical questions tend to proliferate rather than diminish as more becomes known about the geology and hydrology. The Hanford basalt. The pnority being given the Hanford basalt and the Nevada tuB has not come about because t h e geologic media have been known from the fint to be suitable for radwaste Waste Bill Approved Finally reaching agreement in the waning days of the 97th Congress. the House and Senate on 20 Decrmber passed Icgishon that is intended to bnng a fedenl-sute accommodation on radioactive waste disposal. The maia bprrier to find passage was lifted when Senator James McQure (R-ldaho). chairman of the Energy and NanvPl Rcsouccs Committa. d of critical imponnnce yielded to the threat of a tilibuster on an issue d by wtenull rcwsitorv host states. Their wsition was that. if a rranitorv s i c selccrcd for licen;ing application by the Dep~nmcntof ~ n e r (WE) i and the Resident should be unaccqmble to the host stace. i u "veto" of the site should stand unless wenidden by both houses of Congress. Although t h m was su&stan(iP1 congmsiond support for this wition. the bills first passed by the House and Senate h d not gone that far. each body having chosen instead to give the host states a veto that would stand onc house of Con-. But Seww William only if sustained by at 1Roxrnire. whox home s a t e of Wisconsin contains granite fonrutions h a t arc of inlacst to WE. was able to talte advantage of ttK latenas of the hour by thutening to filibuster unless the s t u e position w u accepted. McClure, as Senate manager of the l+luion. chose to gwe in to Roxmire rather than see the legislation die. just as a previous &waste bill had died in 1980 at the close of the 96th Congms. This broke the impasse. with the Surace agreeing by voice vote to the biil with the more iiberal state veto provision. Find passage in the H o e was by a vote of 2S6 to 32. The concession made to the potenlial host swu should give them strong leverage in their dealings with DOE, whom some of the s w t s (panicduly Utah) have accused of farling to give them complete and timeiy information and of attempting to push the site ~ i c c l i o nprocess too rapidly. But environmental lobbyists. citing what they perceive as irnporwt defecis remaining in this long and complex p u e of legislation. would have prefemd to see the measure die. They found especidy objectionable some proccdud shoncuu on environmental review and a provision calling for DOE to present to Corns within 2% yeam a site-specific prop& for a Monitored Rcvievable Storage (MRS) faciiity for spent fuei or high-levei waste. They see in the MRS the possibiiity that the g d of permanent disposal of &waste might be abandoned. But nuclear industry lobbyists and DO& strongly favored passage of the legislation despite the major concession to states' righu. W E has feit hamstrung for lack of the kind of sututoriiy defined federal-state "consultation and cooperation" mechanism that the legislation provides.-U.C. dispod. In fact Rockwell Internattonal, the W E contractor at Hanford. was called io account In \981 by 11s Hvdroio. gy and Geology Overvtew Comrntttet !a goup w e up largely of unwersttybased sclenttsts) for stating that the Hanford basalt was under study "because of the favoable geology of the stte." The committee observed: "We trust this is not a representatwe attttude. There is d l y only one soiid justrfication for studying this site and it is the sociopoliticai fact that the land is a U.S. nuclear reservation. From a hydrogeological perspective. the Columbia River Basalt Group as a whole is not well suited for a high-level waste repository. It may well be that wtth funher data a n d or careful enpneering design it can be shown to be acceptable. but it CMnOt be stated that the 'geology is favorable.' " The political climate for the b a t project is more or less sympathetic in the Hanford vicinity, where the people have long been familiar with things nuclear. But elsewhere in the state attttudes arc rrsmed. to say the least. In 1980. Washington citizens voted ovenwhelmingiy for a b d o t initiative to lirmt or prevent nudear waste-high as well as low leve M r o m being shipped in from outside the state (a law that has since b e m deciared unconstituuonal). Governor John Spellman. with support from DOE. has recently established a tark force to bring the basait project under close state review. W E realizes that it is on its mettle to show that the basalt investigation is being conducted in a rigorously scientific manner. The panlcipauon of the USGS in this investigation has in recent months been earnestly solicited. This marks a big change from the late 1960's and eariy 1970's when the basait studies were scuting under ARCO. the W E contractor at the time. The USGS scientists found ARC0 so unresponsive to their suggestions and crittques that they chose to w~thdraw. Now. the USGS is focustng on the hydrolo(~lcregme in the basait. in panicular on the possible pathways by which radionuclides could be transponed from the rcpos~torysite to the Columbia River. Rockwell believes that the discharge point is quite distant and that it would take 40,000yean or longer for radionuclides to reach the river. an esttrnate which ~f accepted would sattsfy regulatory critena by a wide m-n. But the USGS has not yet reviewed Rockwefl's data or its data-collection merhods. and remains to be convtnced. "We feel that the groundwater flow svstem could be dischargmg dl along the SCIENCE. V O L 219 nver." John B. Robenson of the USGS totd Science. To rcsoive this issue. a specla1 ievlew group has been estabiishea. ;v~thRockweii. the Batteile P a d IC Honhwest Laboratones. and the USGS ail panrcipating. and with the Lawrence Berkeley Labomtory s m i n g as But a variety of other questions also has been raised. For instance. hacturcs found in core samples suggest that the basalt is under high horizontal compmsive stress. Besides complicating the design and c o n s t ~ c t i o nof the repository. the s t m s might induce fractures and create new pathways for radionuclides to -P=. Now there is even a question whether the very large. 20-foot-diameter shaft needed for a repository could be constructed deep into the basalt. "At the moment. a big issue is can they in fact sink a shaft." say Harry Smedes. a respmed field geologist formerly with the USGS who is now an adviser to the NWTS program leaders. "Knowing that the uppcr third of the formation has a lot of water-btanng beds in it. they feel that you have to drill an enormous borehole rather than use the conventional drilland-blast. dig-it-out method where you've got men down in the hole. It's d l y pushing the state of the an. It depends on what drilling company you taik to as to how optimistic or pessimisrm an answer you get." The Nevada IUB.The investigation of Nevada tuff-a rock formed not from the extrusion of lava flows but from the welding togtrher of pumice. ash. and other material hurled out of volcanoes in explosive eruptions-4s going on at Yucca Mountain. in an area that lakes in the southwest corner of the Nevada Test Sitc and extends over onto other federals ly owned land. This loution ~ n n to have considerable potential as an area for disposai of adioaaive waste. For one thing, the t a t site. which c o v m 1350 square miles. is already contaminated from t h m decades of nuclear w e a p ons testing and pmumabiy will k kept under fight institutional control for a long time to come. For another, some 1600 to 2000 fee! of the tuff lies above the water table and this "unsaturated zone" may constitute an excdlent geologx medium for radwaste disposal. But some major technical issues have arisen in the Yucca Mountain investignlion and remain unresolved. For instance. a potential eanhquake probiem came to light as rhe result of rests conduaed only last spring. The tuff was found to be under high tensional tectonic stress-stress that tends to separate the 7 J A N U A R Y 19113 dual-track approach. Consfruct~onof the exoioratory shaft will proceed wnde ar William J. Broad. wno has been the same tlme tne coilect~onoi hvdrologa News and Comment -e;roner IC aata ionrlnues--aata on wnlcn ongslnce 1978, I S leaving S a e n c r . He lnaily the slle s seiecr~onfor fuil ":harIS jotnlng the screncc stad of the actenzatlon" was lo have ~n pan Men New Yod limes. based. For either bedded or dome salt rhe cost of conslructrng an exploralory shaft and dotng the necessary In sltu tesrs IS rock-d this makes exrsting faults in expected to run somewhere between 530 the area susceptible to movement in the miilion and 550 million. Thus. by golng went of a sizable eanhquake in the to this phase without adequate hydrologkrgq region. which is seismically ac- ic data. DOE IS gambling that the site will not be disqualified on the bass 0i uve. Fmm a t&niul standpoint this find- informatron that comes in from rest weils ing has not been considered panlcularly located around the site-mfonnauon a&nning: many mines have survived which could be garhered hefiwr the cosieurhquakes. and. it is felt. a properly ly shaft is bu~lt if more time were almginmcd Yucca Mountain repository lowed. William Fisher. director of the Texas could withstand such an event. Nonetheless. according to William W. Dudley. Bureau of Economic Geology. observes the USGS coordinator for the welded that something else bes~des money is tuff investigation. the discovery that the being put at r i s k W E and the waste probability of eanhquake activtty at the program's credibility. " f pnonall y site is greater than was once believed. would prefer that they not take that though m a p s not greater than I in risk." he says. According to Fisher. 10.000 for any one year. created a stir DOE has so little hydrologic data for the among the project managen because of PaAo Duro Basin. where a speclfic site the regulatory and poiit~cal problems remains to be pinpointed. that geohyt h a ~might be provoked. drology cannot be used as a screenmg DOE has reason enough to take such tool. Yet in and around the arcas o f problems Knously. because. by some interest there is. he says. some evidence indicafon. the Nevada political environ- within the formation of "interior dissoiument for ndwaste disposai has changed tion. " In March 1981 the USGS adv~sed from warmly receptive to coldly hostiie. As montly as 1978 a radwaste reposi- WE by letter that the chances for pretory was viewed by Nevada political dicting subsurface geologrc and hydroleaden as a possible economic boon. But 1-c conditions were "s~gnlticantly betduriog the last few yean boah Governor ter in bedded salt than in dome salt." Robefi List. a Republican. and the Dem- The basic reason for this. as indicated in the USGS lener. is that. while bedded ocratic candidate who beat him in N+ vcmber. Attorney General Richard Bry- salt formations can vary. they are In an. have led a crusade to shut down a general characrcnzed by a relatrvely slmc o m m d low-level waste facility at ple "layer cake" geoiogy of salt interBeatty, not far from the Nevada Test bedded with other kinds of mater~aland Sitc. overlain by rocks from the erosion of Why this change in the political cii- surrounding highland areas. mate? In an interview in early 1981. Salt domes. on the other hand. arc far Governor List said. "It goes back to the more complex. They were formed when aunolphciic testing of the 1950's. The d n p layen of bedded salt. herng rciaAEC misled the public. People don't tlvely light and buoyant. pushed up trust the authorities. They arc cynical. through weak places in rhe oueriyrng We have families who remember, survi- rock. rising thousands o i feet untd !he) von who litigate in the courts. high approached the eanh's suriacc. where public awareness." char~cteristlcailythe dissolving actron of Salt beds and salt domes. A funda- groundwater on the salt and [he consolimental concern on the pan of oifrcials in dation of less soluble malenals has the salt states-panicularly Utah. Tex- formed a caprock. as. and MississippCis that W E has not " A good way ro visualize it." says stuck lo what was to have been a sequen- Smedes. "is to rake a bunch oi colored tial. step-by-step approach to slte cioths or old rags and lec each colur screening and selection. Instead. to keep represent a diferent rock type and have ;ram having to abandon 11s pian to select them stacked up like a layer cake. and a salt s ~ t efor an exploratory shaft thls [hen draw rhk entire mass up ~hrougnd coming .Way. DOE has chosen to go to a hole you've made hv Ihumh dnd furefin- p r You ll notlee there arc v e v compiex vemcally onented folds. hlgnly convo'lutca. Then ~f you snlp pan o i tnat o f and maKe 3 nonzontal sectlon. you il s e t how compl~catcdthese cnnuiations arc. largely venlca~lyonented but really like a marole cake. To the extent that these different rock types have desirable and undes~raole hydrologrc or m e c h a n l d propenla. you can see the difficulty, the near ~mpossibliity.of trylng to predict or determtne ahead of tlme what the configuratlon 1s." Complex as dome salt may be. ail salt. as a genenc rock type. presents complicat~onsbecause of the bnne that 11cont a m . The bnne. as has been known since the 1960's. tends to mlgrate toward the iacllity is to be built. from the nonh end of the site to the south end. Major bnne p k e t s . ~nc~dentaily, seem to be associated mom with 'betided sait than dome sait. Whiie salt beds are in general simpler than salt domes. DOE'S investigation of the bedded d t of the Paadox Basin in Utah has not followed a happy or prediclabie counc. Test boreholes have k e n driiled at four locations in the basin. and. unluckily, the best of them from a gcologrc standpoint has seemed to be a site in Davis Canyon within less than a mile of Canyonlands Natlonal Parlc. M o m v e r . according to R o b m J. Dingman. a consultant to the Utah state gcologrst. the most likely path for any American experience to date ~nfour rock typcs--basait. rua. and bedded and dome salt-shows rnat ivryrng our :his concept 1s no stmole. stralgntiomard engineering tasw. A USGS odrclal. :cstlfymg before a congressionai committee last June. cautioned: "How successiuily and quickly {the major geoiog~cissues1 can be resolved remans u n c c m n , in our opinion. Answen to many of the questions requ~rcinnovauve experimentit p r o c d u m of large g e o m e h c dimension and long time periods." Another authority. Paul A. Witherspaon. until recently head of eanh scicncu at the Lawrence Berlreiey Laborat o y and a leading expen on granite as a dispoul medium. has proposed to DOE and the NRC. thus far unsuccessfully. that for every rock type and every candidate site a l a r g e - d e , 5- to 10-year experiment costing up to 539 million should be conducred to simulate the edect of hear from waste cantsten on the rock maus. um. According to Withenpoon. the e x w ment woutd serve mainly to influence repository design and the spacing of the waste packages but it might in some cases r e v d a a t e to be unsafe and unacceptable. "I've heard a lot of p m gram managen say. 'If we find a problem. we'll e n q n a r around it.' That. in my optnion, is a very naive appraach," Withenpoon told Science. Despte all such cauuonary advice from the expens. the cficht that " a d i e aaive waste disposal is a political but not a technical probiem" continues to k heard. It reflects a misapprehension of the d i t i a of geologic diswsal which is obviously quite widely held in Congress as well as in nucicar indusvy circles. In 1970 the geologic disposal p r o w suffered a political setback from which it has MVer fully recovered when Ihe Atomic E n e g y Commission (AEC). acting prec~pitiously. announced that the notion's first repository would be budt in a salt mine at Lyons. Kansas. The prop o d soon had to be withdrawn. for the site was shown to be dl-chosen and possibly unsafe. W E is not likeiy to make. or to be ailowed to make. mistakes as obvious as those the ..4ECmade at Lyons. But unless the technical realities of geologc disposai are respcctcd for what they are. with NWTS schedules adjusted as needed to fit those realities. funher political embarrassments couid well lie ahcad.&t~ J. CAM Numerous scientific groups. in the United States and abroad. have concluded that the concept of the deep mined geologic repository for the disposal of radioactive waste is feasible. But the A conrributinq writer to Science. Carter is doing a study for Re~ourccsfor the Future of the nuclear wasre prob/ern as a won'd dilemma. c.WIyontuld8 H.rrorur rn -.---- ~prnrnutngd d i d soh srrr ir'irsr than o mrir from thr port. Cdlrcrrorr of hpdrobgic d u o may rrquur driiling in thr pod itsrlf. a heat source and. unless excessive trmperaturn are avoided. waste canistcn wuld become immersed in a hot. highly corrosive bath. For the-most pan the brim exists as microscopic "inclusions" in the A t . Buc it can also occur in large pock ets. sometimes under p m s u r c suficicnl to blow out a well or create havoc in a mine. Twice now over the 8 y e a n [ha! DOE'S Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) pro). ect for military transuranic waste has been in progress near Carisbad. New Mex~co,drilling rigs have hit bnne pockets. The last time was November a year ago when W E . acting at the insistence of state otficials. sought to determine the nature of an anomaly that had been detected in a seismic survey near the nonh end of the proposed rqmsitory. Although not a show stopper, the dixovery of this brine pocket. togmher with indications of some other imgularitia or anomalies present at depth. led W E to aqm recently to a state recommendation to shift the repository's location. if M d i o n u c l i d e transport by groundwater is toward the park and the Colondo River. Collection of the relevant hydrologic dnrn will require borehole drilling inside he park itsdf. Dingman bdieves. This requirement. if continned (DOEdisputes Dingman's finding), could ignite funher controvmy about the exploration for rddwaste disposal sites on the edge of a d o n d pyk. Last July. Utah's Governor Scon Matheson. disturbed at a DOE decision that the sciection of a salt site for an exploratory shatl shall not k subjea to a full environmental impact review, ordered state a m c i a to withhold ail assistance fmm DOE. for exampie. denying permits for the transpon of overweight driiling rigs on state roads. The e f k x has &en to put the Paradox Basin investigation under a vinual moratori- SCIENCE. V O L 219