Controversy Simmers at Atomic-Waste Site

Article excerpt

Deep within the parched landscape of southwest Nevada, scientists are analyzing the geologic personality of an unassuming ridge called Yucca Mountain. At issue is whether the bald, elongated promontory has a stable character--steadfast enough to house the highly radioactive waste generated by nuclear power plants across the United States. The range must lock up this hot debris for the next 10,000 years.

During the past 15 years, hundreds of geologists have crawled over Yucca Mountain, making it the best-studied piece of real estate on the planet. Recently, however, a debate has erupted over some curious events discovered in the mountain's past that could signal an underlying restlessness in its constitution.

"The implications of this finding can be very serious for the [planned] repository," says Yuri V. Dublyansky, a Russian geologist studying Yucca mountain under contract with the state of Nevada, which opposes the repository.

Scientists with the U.S. Geologic Survey counter that the unruly behavior was confined to Yucca Mountain's infancy, millions of years ago, and has no bearing on its current character. The Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees the investigation into Yucca Mountain, is now conducting an independent review of Dublyansky's controversial findings, hoping to resolve the scientific wrangling. The two sides discussed their work last week at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Boston.

Yucca Mountain is the only site currently under consideration as a repository for spent nuclear fuel. DOE began studying the ridge in the mid-1980s and had intended to open the facility by 1998. Although it has yet to finish assessing the site, DOE last December issued a report concluding that no "showstopper" had emerged in its studies to date.

The plans call for canisters of nuclear waste to reside in the mountain's heart, within rooms cut out of the volcanic rock formations 300 meters below the summit. This would keep the waste hundreds of meters above the water table, preventing the radioactive elements from leaking quickly into the groundwater.

The current debate centers on the history of water within the mountain. Dublyansky, a researcher at the Institute of Mineralogy and Petrology in Novosibirsk, Russia, claims that hot brines have surged upward in geologically recent times, reaching a level that would flood the repository. …