A case study of the proposal to dispose of low-level radioactive waste in Boyd County Nebraska.

Harmon D. Maher Jr.


America's nuclear industry started in earnest in the 1950s, with three main participants: the military, the nuclear power industry, and hospital and research facilities as a minor third party. Along with the nuclear industry came radioactive wastes, which can be divided into high-level and low level categories. The high level wastes are of greater concern because of the greater radioactivity, toxicity, corrosiveness, and potential for weapons proliferation. This has led to the present battle over Yucca mountain. In 1980 Congress passed the Federal Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act in order to develop sites which would dispose of (store) the low-level wastes. It is at this point this case study starts.

In response to the 1908 Act in 1983-84 Nebraska and four other states formed a 5 state compact to figure out where to build a low-level radioactive waste site. A disposal site was selected by the Central Compact in Boyd County, Nebraska, but rejected by the state. Today there is no operational disposal site for the compact. Nebraska is no longer in the compact, and as the result of a lawsuit brough by the compact with the State of Nebraska as the plaintiff, must pay the compact some $150 million. Even though it is no longer in the compact, as part of the settlement it is in the process of negotiation with Texas to have that states disposal facility accept Nebraska's and the compacts waste. The level of genuine risk from the low-level radioactive waste is debatable. Even the most generous assessment would label this attempt to find a waste disposal site a failure. This naturally raises many questions. The history of selection and rejection of the Boyd County site, along with the legal and political consequences are at the core of this case study.

The siting of a low-level radioactive waste disposal site must consider many factors, including legal and political considerations, but fundamental to this endeavor is the following question. "Where and how can the waste be contained, and kept isolated for the needed time, so that risk to human health is minimal?" Most importantly, the question is scientific in nature. The purpose of this report then is to summarize this case history, and to consider why it was such a failure, with a focus on the role that science played throughout. We also entertain some ideas on how the siting process can be improved. The reader should remember that rarely does a complex outcome have a single contributory cause. That appears to be the true here.

What is the broader significance of looking at this case study? Insight into this specific failure may provide insight into a larger phenomena of how societal decisions are made when dealing with complex issues with a critical scientific component. Examples abound of how difficult this can be. At present Nebraska is struggling with major revisions to water law, and the crucial scientific issue is the nature of the connection between surface and ground water. Internationally, there is fierce debate about the risks associated with genetically modified food and seeds. Finally, the world struggles with what to do, if anything, about global warming, and the core of this debate is the question as to whether the introduction of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from fossil fuels is a significant driver in recent climate change. While scientific questions are at the core of all these debates, the discussion is also shaped by political, cultural and legal forces. Thus, analysis of the Boyd Count case study may help us to see ways to improve the process for making decisions regarding problems with a scientific core.

Finally, who are the arbitraters of this report? This is a report from an undergraduate class seminar team taught by two faculty members of the Geography and Geology Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Both students and faculty have written different sections (the authors are identified for each section). Each section has undergone substantial review and revision by the other students and by faculty.