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The forgotten legacy of nuclear waste:
my work with Florence Sanchez

By Lucille Shaw / Intern
June 7, 2002

Think of as many words as you can that relate to the subject of, radioactive nuclear waste. Did words such as Chernobyl, cheap energy, Cold War, cancer, Hiroshima, the Manhattan Project, mutation, annihilation, H-bomb, X-rays, or hazardous come to mind?

This was the list I came up with after my first meeting with David Kosson, the professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt. He asked me to list the words and phrases I associated with nuclear waste to show the one-sidedness of public perception on this topic.

My list proved his point. All the words were associated with nuclear waste's history; its relationship to the bomb; and some of its benefits and hazards. None had to do with its ultimate fate: disposal.

After this lesson, I learned much more about the forgotten legacy of nuclear cycle during a Communication of Science, Technology, and Engineering internship last fall with Kosson and Florence Sanchez, a research professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt. Through their direction and guidance, I learned to link the legacies of nuclear waste production with its long-term management.

The purpose of the internship was to gain a better understanding of the process of science by working in a real laboratory for a semester. With this in mind, my preconception of the internship included test tubes, white lab coats, and protective goggles. But the lab setting differed from what I expected. Surprisingly, the lab consisted of a computer, a swivel chair, and a detailed database designed by Sanchez. Not a typical lab, but the scientific process was present.

Sanchez failed to meet my stereotypical expectations of a scientist as well. Instead of a shaggy gray-haired, mustached, lab-coated, mono-toned male, I found myself working with a young, independent, accomplished, and naturally beautiful French woman.

Along with her responsibilities as a professor of a graduate course in mass transfer and thermodynamics, she studies how varying combinations of chemicals might react with each other in landfills. Sanchez also works on an additional project: evaluating stewardship requirements for radioactive waste isolation facilities such as disposal sites for uranium mill tailings. As part of this project, she is investigating means of ensuring long-term sustainability of these engineered facilities. So, she designed a database to gather information on the uranium mill tailings disposal sites.

When it is completed, the database should make it possible to analyze how well current cell and site designs are performing. It should provide an improved way to estimate the likelihood and consequences of different types of unanticipated events such as erosion or plant intrusion. She is convinced that this is the best way to come up with new, improved systems for storing radioactive waste safely.

Before such analyses can be performed, however, the data must be complete, correct and properly organized. That is where I came in. My job was to correct and add as much data as possible.

Complex database contains information about 21 uranium mill tailings disposal sites

The database is complex and contains information about 21 uranium mill tailings disposal sites managed by the Long-Term Surveillance and Management program (LTSM), the branch of the Department of Energy (DOE) that is in charge of overseeing over 100 nuclear waste disposal site nationwide.

The department is responsible for ensuring that Americans are protected from nuclear waste until it decays to level safe for humans - a process estimated to take some 10,000 years.

To characterize the 21 different sites Sanchez has set up over 100 fields. A few of them are waste origin, cell area and site location. Other fields describe the types of events that can occur at these sites, including erosion, plant and animal intrusion and seepage.

At the beginning of my internship the database had many fields that were missing data, in particular those dealing with climate and failure modes. It is important to have as many fields filled as possible so the queries (the questions we ask the database) will come back with representative data.

To fill in the missing data, Sanchez and I combed through annual inspection reports on the sites published by the Department of Energy since 1989. We also read reports on the original designs of the sites in order to compare how they are performing with the original expectation.

Getting cost information proved to be the biggest problem

We had the most difficulty obtaining information about construction and maintenance costs. It is possible to get overall figures on how much the DOE spends on managing all nuclear waste sites, but to find the costs associated with individual sites is much more difficult. However, site-specific information is necessary for Sanchez's research. She wants to use the database to perform the life cycle cost and risk analyses of these facilities.

In my view the public should know current program costs as well as future failure costs in order to make political decisions about nuclear waste management. One such important policy currently being debated is whether the government should continue to store highly radioactive spent fuel from commercial nuclear reactors at over 100 sites around the country or transport it to a single depository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Despite the importance of these figures, we were never able to find the cost information we needed during my internship.

In addition to missing information, there were numerous spelling errors or redundancies in the data that had previously been entered into the database. In a few cases, the data in a field was too broad, so I had to create new fields to organize the information appropriately. For example, the entries in the field "Water Table Information" contained too much information for one field. So sub-dividing it into "Depth to Water Table," "Quality" and "Hydrogeology" made the database more specific and better organized.

Through this work, I began to understand the tedious side of science. Filling in missing data and insuring that previously entered data was correct became increasingly arduous. After a few hours, I found that my mind would start to drift and my eyes would become fixed on people outside enjoying the weather.

Working with the database was often repetitive and mind numbing, but this dedication is part of science. Before making the exciting new discoveries, researchers must pay their dues by investing large amounts of time and effort in often tedious study and analysis. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, research is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

Sanchez is very familiar with this aspect of science. She recently completed a grueling 300-page report on her research on leaching. Writing such a report in English is particularly a difficult task because her native language is French.

During this period, she and I were both isolated at our computers. In our discussions, we agreed that there is little excitement or interaction with others to revive the mind when doing this kind of work. To keep her intellect fresh, she often leaves her work for a run or work out to restore her spirits.

Reading the DOE reports was tedious, but the vague nature of the reports frustrated me and kept me engrossed in my work. The DOE's annual inspection reports are frequently imprecise and unclear. That forced me to weed through all the euphemisms to understand the true condition of the site. All too often I found that phrases such as "the site is in excellent condition" were followed by descriptions of problems such as plant intrusion in the radon barrier level.

Sanchez shared my frustration with the reports because she needs straightforward descriptions of the integrity of the sites for her database. The problem is not that the government has the information but is not willing to share it, she said. Rather, the problem is that the department's record-keeping requirements are inadequate and do not require the site managers to gather the necessary data in the first place. So she and Kosson have mounted a low-key campaign to convince DOE officials that upgrading the record-keeping requirements are worth the effort.

In order to inform others about her database and to get feedback from her peers, Sanchez frequently travels to scientific conferences. Interacting with other scientists in her field, hearing other's advances and getting feedback on her work drives her to succeed and discover.

Now, if I were asked to list words associated with nuclear waste, my list would be considerably larger. It would include terms like depository, long-term surveillance and maintenance, Yucca Mountain, engineered cells, DOE and "in good condition." Because of my internship, there is no chance that I will forget the long-term legacy of nuclear waste.

 Lucille Shaw is majoring in the Communication of Engineering, Science and Technology

David Kosson's online bio and research information

Florence Sanchez's online bio


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