The waste might be buried in this mountain, 1,000 feet underground and on 1,000 feet of rock, for at least 10,000 years. One can only say ``might be'' because the regulatory process -- which already has taken more than twice as much time as it took to plan and accomplish the moon landing, and which is now a matter of dueling scientists -- might last 10,001 years.
The dueling is about whether safe storage of the waste can be guaranteed for 10,000 years, or perhaps a million years -- the span of projected geological stability for the mountain area. That is quite a while: 10,000 years ago, agriculture was just being born as humans, moving beyond a hunter-gatherer economy, were learning to domesticate plants.
Nevada asks: Can the safekeeping of the waste be absolute, forever? The answer, of course, is no -- nothing is that certain. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will decide whether the repository can begin receiving waste after evaluating scientific studies conducted within the bowels of this mountain. Two federal agencies are investigating accusations that some federal scientists falsified data to make the mountain seem safe.
Storing nuclear waste, which decays very slowly and emits great heat while doing so, has been studied since 1955, when nuclear submarine propulsion technology was adapted to generate electricity. After considering storage on the seabed or a remote island or in the polar ice sheets, or rocketing the waste into orbit around the sun, deep geologic storage became the preferred solution. Some Kansas salt mines were considered, but the mines were too difficult to seal and, besides, Kansas became, as Nevada is now, obstreperous.
The crucial questions are how water permeates this mountain, and how heat from the waste might affect the mountain's hydrology. The federal government's case for this mountain's suitability is:
The volcanic and seismic risks are factored into designs. Average annual precipitation is very low, 7.5 inches, 95 percent of which runs off the mountain or into vegetation root systems. Even assuming that coming millennia will be slightly cooler, hence wetter -- the evidence of fossilized pack rats' nests at least 35,000 years old -- hydrological and chemical conditions in the mountain would cause corrosion of just 0.03 inches in 10,000 years, such is the metallurgical sophistication of the proposed waste containers.
Scientists here say their confidence in the repository's safety rests on assumptions that ``are almost absurdly conservative.'' Nevada's vehement disagreement will be examined in a subsequent column.