Why U.S. Climate Policy is Radioactive

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMay 26, 2011 7:15 PM


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Below is a guest post from Jonathan Gilligan, an associate professor in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, Vanderbilt University. He is also the associate director of Vanderbilt's Climate Change Research Network. Gilligan works at "the intersection of science, ethics, and public policy with a focus on the ways in which scientific knowledge and uncertainty affect policy decisions about the environment." I have been struck by the similarities between the national impasse on climate policy and the breakdown of policy on nuclear waste disposal. The two cases are by no means identical, but perhaps we can learn useful things from both the similarities and the differences. As Daniel Sarewitz pointed out years ago, in both climate politics and nuclear waste politics, policymakers have tended to "scientize" the issue by acting as though greater scientific certainty would solve problems that were fundamentally political. No advances in earth science, hydrology, materials science, or engineering will do much to reduce our uncertainties about how spent nuclear fuel will behave underground over the course of tens or hundreds of millennia. Neither do I think it likely that advances in climate science will give us great certainty about exactly how bad global warming will be over the coming centuries. Fundamentally, the impasse over Yucca Mountain had a lot more to do with politics, values, and trust than with science. Congress had originally called in 1982 for ten prospective sites to be studied, narrowed down to six prospects, from which two permanent waste repositories would be selected, and states would have the opportunity to veto their selection as the home of a repository. But before those studies were complete new legislation amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act which simply declared Yucca Mountain the only repository for high-level nuclear waste. This "Screw Nevada Bill," as it came to be known, poisoned the whole endeavor as far as most Nevadans were concerned. Subsequent attempts to justify this political action in terms of science carried little weight in Nevada and the failure to openly acknowledge that the site was selected for political reasons made it impossible for proponents and opponents to have useful discussions. Another aspect that was unfortunately neglected in most discussions of Yucca Mountain was the fact that people in Southern Nevada may well have been much more concerned about the prospect of frightened tourists choosing other resort destinations than they were about the health impacts to distant future generations. The Yucca Mountain site was initially defended by ignoring the political and economic implications and instead, focusing purely on scientific health safety issues: It was estimated that water percolated through the volcanic rocks at a very slow rate of less than one millimeter per year, which would mean that it would take hundreds of thousands of years for radioactive material to reach the water table. The decision to store waste at Yucca Mountain was largely presented to the public as "the science is settled: the site is safe, so you don't have any valid cause to complain." The political opposition accepted this framing and proceeded to oppose the site by challenging the scientific certainty of the proponents. Evidence quickly emerged that water was actually flowing through the rocks at up to 30 millimeters per year. As geologists and hydrologists continued to study the site, further controversies and uncertainties emerged. With the revelation that water could get from the repository to the aquifer fast enough to pose a problem, new questions were raised about the resistance of the waste containers to corrosion and there were proposals to modify the design to include an elaborate and expensive set of titanium drip shields to protect the containers. In 2005, as this was going on, opponents of the repository unearthed emails between hydrologists working on the question of how fast water percolated through the mountain which seemed to indicate (much as the CRU emails would several years later), that the scientists were falsifying their data. Inflammatory exceprts, such as

I've made up the dates and names.... This is as good as its going to get. If they need more proof, I will be happy to make up more stuff...


I keep track of 2 sets of files, the ones that will keep QA happy and the ones that were actually used.

with instructions to the recipient to "delete this memo after you've read it," led opponents of the project to conclude that they couldn't trust any of the scientific assurances the site was safe and the governor of Nevada to accuse the Department of Energy of having "intentionally fabricated" the data "in service of shoring up predetermined and politically-driven conclusions." Ultimately, much as happened in Climategate, a two-year investigation determined that no data had actually been falsified, that no one had actually committed misconduct, and that informal banter had been mistaken by overheated imaginations to be evidence of a criminal conspiracy. But by then, it was too late. As the late Edward McGaffigan, a Commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told the Las Vegas Sun,

Bad law, bad regulatory policy, bad science policy, bad personnel policy and bad budget policy [meant that] there is no chance Yucca can go forward under current statute. I would go back to the beginning. When you go out of process it's a problem, it's a huge political problem. If a process is done fairly, I think you have a shot.

So what are the lessons? I'm not sure, but here are some thoughts: It's popular to point to well-funded, carefully-organized media campaigns, supported by major industrial interests for the public's distrust of climate change science and for the political paralysis on climate change policy. But the fact that similar tactics carried out by grassroots environmental activists and local politicians were equally successful at killing Yucca Mountain suggests that the success of inactivist propaganda on climate change may not be due to the power or malevolence of its sponsors. In both cases, connecting policy action to scientific certainty was likely a bad tactical mistake. In both cases, there is substantial uncertainty about the things we most care about and in fact, in the case of climate change, Martin Weitzman's Dismal Theorem concludes that calculations of the expected economic cost of climate change are dominated by the mathematical details of the low-probability/catastrophic-consequence tail of the probability distribution. (Weitzman's theorem is controversial, but the controversy is over the mathematical form he chooses for the tail of the probability distribution.) Thirty-two years ago, the Charney report on climate change concluded that

If carbon dioxide continues to increase [there is] no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible. ... A wait and see policy may mean waiting until it is too late.

Twenty-three years after the Charney report and thirteen years after the birth of the US Global Change Research Program, Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke Jr., argued that we had known for a very long time that political action on climate change was necessary, but it had become politically convenient to spend billions on a futile task of reducing uncertainty as a way to avoid taking prompt action to address the dangers of climate change:

Motivating politicians and policymakers to improve energy policies and reduce vulnerability to climate effects may be challenging, but it does not require a reduction in uncertainty about the future climate.

Finally, there is a very important difference between these two cases. It is not a tragedy that Yucca Mountain was killed. Ultimately, we will need a place to store high-level radioactive waste, but there is no time pressure. Nevada Senator Harry Reid has argued that it will be fine to keep spent fuel in dry casks at reactor sites for as long as a couple of centuries while we deliberate on how best to dispose of it and while scientists and engineers develop new technologies to make the disposal safer and cheaper. We do not have a similar luxury of time in the case of climate change. Every decade we fail to take serious action to clean up our energy supply we increase significantly the risk that we will cross some uncertain, perhaps even unsuspected point of no return for truly horrifying consequences. Our ignorance of whether such tipping points exist or at what concentrations of greenhouse gases should not be an excuse for delay, but more reason to act quickly. As climate scientist Wally Broecker has famously described the problem, "It's like being blindfolded and walking towards the edge of a cliff."

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