Biochemistry 101
Oct. 13, 2005

To be honest, I’m really not sure what to make of the proposed Yucca Mountain Repository. I was able to get a significant amount of information out of the seven articles that were provided, as well as the external reading and research I did, and yet I still have mixed feelings. On one hand, I do appreciate that most of the articles and various sources are written to be understandable to the average person, and they do so without talking down to the reader. That said, there were times when I began to feel a bit of an “information overload”; some of the articles seemed almost intent on drowning the reader in a sea of (comparatively minor) facts and details, which can quickly overwhelm a person who is unfamiliar with the subject at hand.

I cite the first article, written by Jeff Johnson and published in “Chemical & Engineering News,” as a good example of an article that seemed a rather burdensome read. Admittedly, maybe I should have expected this; the title of the magazine should indicate that this is not a publication commonly read by the layperson. It’s probably more suitable for people who have a career in a related scientific field, as well as those who have sufficient interest. Now, I do appreciate some aspects of this article; the lead block makes for an appropriate introduction, and it provides a good summary of the topic at hand. Also, the article does make good use of pull quotes, illustrations and diagrams to help guide the reader to the some of the key points and explain them. Johnson does take the perspective of an objective observer, which is one of the signs of a good journalist. Overall, while the article is technically and journalistically solid, it still makes for a long read, and even the diagrams and large advertisements don’t provide enough of a break in the text for the reader to ‘stop and catch his breath,’ so to speak. It drags on at points, and that makes reading somewhat akin to slogging through a thick, murky swamp, but that is a subjective point.

 Perhaps the articles that most surprised me—not in terms of content but readability—were those provided by the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management. For the most part, whenever I hear that an article, report or other publication has come from a governmental agency, I almost cringe at the thought of reading it; I’m accustomed to equating “government” with “bureaucracy,” “long-winded” and “agonizingly boring.” (I actually still haven’t changed my opinion, for the most part.) So it was an unexpected, but certainly pleasant, surprise. A number of factors that work in favor of the Department of Energy’s two reports, including the fact that it doesn’t dwell on political debates, legislation and the like. (These are important, but when an article obsesses over such topics, it soon gets tiresome.) In addition to making an effective use of white space in the page layout, the boldfaced headers keep things organized.

 The DOE’s decision to take a look at things from a historical perspective was a good way to get the reader’s interest, and more ‘user-friendly’ explanations help out us laypeople. The succinct, borderline-conversational tone of the paragraphs is more approachable than a towering skyscraper of paragraphs all slammed together. Lastly, showing how this information relates to our day-to-day lives keeps the reader from wondering, “So what?”

The report titled “Yucca Mountain as a Radioactive-Waste Repository,” written for the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey, is a more traditional approach to government documents. That is, it’s longer and not as engaging. However, considering that it is (unless I misunderstood) more or less an abbreviated version of the five-volume “Viability Assessment,” I do give credit to anyone who can condense 15 years’ worth of study and research—and the five volumes of reports generated from it—into a size worthy of “Reader’s Digest.” Some of the language is a bit on the technical side, but it’s to be expected for this particular sort of document. The chart seemed well-suited to its purpose, and the diagrams were actually rather interesting ways of visually explaining some concepts.

I did not expect to see an article involving allegations of fraud, but Matthew Wald’s piece for the “New York Times” showed up nonetheless. This is a newspaper that pretty much sets the standard for all other papers, and it has a solid history of accurate, well-done articles. I don’t quite get the impression that Wald is taking as neutral a stance as good journalism tends to require, as he gives very little evidence to counter the claims of fraud that he so meticulously documents. I don’t necessarily call his credibility into question, but he does not seem to be presenting both sides of the story, and we’d be wise to keep in mind that these claims have not yet been proven. Wald seems inclined to sidestep some of the other aspects and questions (about the story) that he could be bringing into discussion.

Wald’s second article, “Casks Gain Favor as Method for Storing Nuclear Waste,” is a bit more of an objective piece, but still not completely. I’m not convinced that Wald has supported his claim that “the Energy Department [is faltering] in its effort to bury nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.” However, he does do a sufficient job in discussing the other side of the topic: What are the alternatives to Yucca Mountain? In quoting different sources, Wald adds some weight to the matter at hand, showing that this is still a hotly debated topic.

I bring into the discussion my own source, and it is from the Sierra Club's Web site. An environmental organization, the Sierra Club was founded in 1892. Membership is in the hundreds of thousands. “Adamantly opposed” summarizes the Sierra Club’s stance on the Yucca Mountain Repository. They feel that the project is basically an exercise in asking for disaster, and argue that one of the biggest problems is the accidents that can (or, according to them, will) occur during transport of irradiated fuel to the facility. They also feel that terrorists could penetrate the shipping casks, which would be another way that the dangerous contents could escape. One of the other big arguments is that “DOE’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) includes proposed rail routes approaching Yucca Mountain where a rail line does not currently exist.” This, they say, would take billions of dollars to change.

Due to the fact that I am not especially familiar with the Sierra Club, it is a bit difficult to determine how credible of a source it is. Compared to the others, I would say it is somewhat less credible. This is not because they are taking sides (which they are), but rather because there’s not a lot of effort made to document sources. They clearly have done some citing, especially for studies involving such topics as ‘What would happen in the case of a railway accident,’ but a lot of other important points they make are not documented.

The arguments sound solid, and it’s good to have some skepticism rather than just blindly rush into a huge project, but it would be better to take time to substantiate more things. Additionally, some of the actual wording in the discussion is a bit generalized, along the sort of “we all know that [X]…” argument, as though we should assume that the points being made are matters of common sense and are obvious to everyone. Still, I do think some good points are being made.

Work Cited

“Deadly Nuclear Waste Transport.” 2005. The Sierra Club. 13 Oct. 2005. <>.


Questions for Guest Speaker

(1) One Web site’s discussion of the project states that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not tested the shipping casks to be used. Instead, computer-simulated have been used, but that NRC declared the results safe. Further, NRC has no immediate plans to test the shipping containers' durability against fire, sabotage, water immersion, puncture and impact.

Is it correct that the casks themselves have not been tested? How do the computer-simulated models show what would happen under such adverse conditions?

(2) In 1983, the Department of Energy chose nine locations in six states as potential repository sites. This was based on data from some 10 years of study. The results of  preliminary studies of the sites were reported in 1985. Based on these reports, President Reagan approved three sites for intensive scientific study called site characterization. The three sites were Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada. How would you define site characterization, and why was Yucca Mountain finally decided on (over the other two)?