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Copyright 1999 The Seattle Times Company  
The Seattle Times

September 30, 1999, Thursday Final Edition


LENGTH: 598 words



How do we know what we don't know?

And what do we risk when we make decisions based on that lack of knowledge?

Some decisions might be based on a geometric proposition that could be written as "Fact + X = Policy." The formula works like this: We collect relevant documents, stack them in official binders, and make policy from the accumulated evidence.

A dilemma arises when we don't know what's missing from the equation. What does X equal?

Last week, scientists and engineers said they were not sure why a radioactive blob is bubbling in a million-gallon tank under the desert near Richland. The tank, SY-101, was built two decades ago to store nuclear waste at Hanford.

But some problems developed, and the tank is not operating according to plan.

The U.S. Department of Energy said, in the wonderful language of government, that the agency had "incentivized the contractor to develop and execute an aggressive plan to mitigate the level rise in tank 241-SY-101." DOE said it would spend more money to make that happen.

We have to hope this blob is contained before anything goes seriously wrong. There are just too many dangerous scenarios possible given Hanford's location near the Columbia River. But the incentive now exists (at least according to DOE) for private contractors to figure this out.

Facing the immediate demands of radioactive blobs is crucial. But consider how the government is making policy involving the disposal of nuclear waste. This is an entire industry built on assumptions - scientific or financial - that have proved invalid. It's not that the government lies; it just doesn't know how to say "We don't know."

One of the few spending bills that passed Congress last week funds continued research for a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

The very notion of "research" is debatable. Congress decided long ago that the isolated desert location is really the only acceptable site for burial of fuel rods from nuclear power plants. The law is built around what Congress knows to be true: Nevada has few voters and lots of barren desert.

So the scientific research is designed to prove that Yucca Mountain is a good place to bury nasty stuff - not to scout alternative locations or technology.

A recent DOE report (more great government writing) puts it this way:

"The preliminary repository design includes a long-lived waste package and takes advantage of the desert environment and geologic features of Yucca Mountain. Together, the natural and engineered barriers can keep water away from the waste for thousands of years. Analyses of the preliminary design using mathematical models, though subject to uncertainties, indicate that public health and the environment can be protected.

"For 10,000 years after the repository is closed, people living near Yucca Mountain are expected to receive little or no increase in radiation exposure."

"Subject to uncertainties." That's government-speak for making a decision based on what we don't know.

If the plan works, we'll bury fuel rods and other high level waste deep beneath the desert in structures that will last longer than anything ever constructed in human history.

But what if problems develop that we can't predict - things like bubbling crusts?

If that happens - if we're wrong - this stuff will be lethal to human beings for thousands of years to come. We do know that.
Mark N. Trahant's column appears Sunday and Thursday on Page A2 of The Times. His phone message number is 206-464-8517. His e-mail address is

LOAD-DATE: October 2, 1999

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