Too bad George cut class on Yucca Geology 101

I went to class on Thursday, but I didn't see George or Spencer there.

The class was on the geology of Yucca Mountain, taught by Professor Winnie Kortemeier at Western Nevada Community College as part of a series on environmental issues in Nevada.

There were about 25 people in the class, none of whom were George Bush or Spencer Abraham, his secretary of energy.

Then I remembered George and Spencer already had done their homework on Yucca Mountain and decided based on "sound science" it was a swell spot to store the nation's nuclear waste.

Maybe they slept through this part of the course.

Anyway, Kortemeier appears to have some opinions on the safety of storing radioactive waste for 10,000 years inside Yucca Mountain, but her class on Thursday stuck to the facts.

"I don't know anything about politics," she said. "I don't even like politics. But rocks are cool. Rocks don't lie."

OK, so maybe that was a little bit of a political statement right there. But she's to be forgiven.

And be assured I'm making some comments in this column that represent my interpretation of the facts. So don't hold that against the professor. Blame me.

But if you've been swayed by the president's and energy secretary's comments about "sound science," then it's worth sitting through an hour-long basic geology course to be reminded of some of the facts surrounding Yucca Mountain.

The first is that Yucca Mountain is located in one of the most unstable areas of Nevada, which is one of the most geologically unstable states.

-- In a 30-mile radius of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository, 10 micro-earthquakes (less than 1.0 magnitude) are recorded per day.

-- The biggest quake within historical times occurred in 1992 at Little Skull Mountain, 12 miles from the site.

-- One mile of tunnel bored into Yucca Mountain intersected 30 faults, seven of which were considered significant.

-- There are seven dormant cinder cones within 27 miles.

Those are some of the facts. How you interpret those facts -- especially when trying to predict the future -- is another thing.

For example, a Los Alamos Laboratories report says "we have estimated the probability of a new volcano forming and disrupting the candidate Yucca Mountain repository: about 1 in 6,000 chance of a disruptive volcanic eruption within the next 10,000 years.

The Department of Energy, however, calculates "The probability of a future volcanic eruption directly intersecting a repository at Yucca Mountain is estimated to be about one in 70,000,000 per year, as confirmed by an independent panel of experts."

The numbers actually aren't that different. It's a matter of how you look at them.

But as Kortemeier asked, "Which number are you gonna believe? I think you should just believe, 'They don't know.'"

Why does it matter whether the casks storing radioactive waste would be located in a geologically active zone?

It's in the water.

The safety of Yucca Mountain was supposed to depend on the fact the casks would be buried deep inside a solid mountain. But if that mountain leaks, the casks would be exposed to moisture and the potential for carrying radioactivity into the water system.

"Even if you have an earthquake," explained Kortemeier, "and even it breaks open a cask, and even if there's radioactivity inside Yucca Mountain, it doesn't get out unless water takes it out."

And that's the kicker, as far as Nevada's argument against "sound science" goes.

The ability of Yucca Mountain to protect radioactivity for 10,000 years is based on the government's estimate that water percolates through the mountain at 1 to 20 millimeters a year.

The problem with that estimate is the discovery Chlorine 36, from above-ground nuclear testing in the 1950s, has percolated to a depth of 300 meters. That translates into a rate of 6,000 millimeters a year.

If radioactivity does get loose inside Yucca Mountain because of an earthquake, radioactivity would reach the water table in just 100 years -- a little short of the 10,000-year timetable.

So that's what I learned in class on Thursday.

If you see George or Spencer around anywhere, I'll be glad to share my notes.

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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