Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
Jan. 24, 1997

Mixing politics with power

by Skip Derra
Dan Bullen is going to spend part of next week in a hole in a mountain in Nevada. Bullen, associate professor of mechanical engineering and former director of ISU's defunct nuclear engineering program, isn't going into seclusion. He will join geologists, civil engineers, materials scientists and chemists who are looking over a prospective burial site for tons of high-level radioactive wastes.

Inspecting the site at Yucca Mountain, Nev., is one of Bullen's duties as a member of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board. Bullen recently was appointed by President Clinton to the 11-member board, which oversees the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) technical efforts on the safe shipment, storage and disposal of high-level radioactive wastes. The board's primary concern is monitoring and guiding DOE's work on the proposed burial site at Yucca Mountain.

Given the scope of the project and its cost, Bullen will play an important role on a hot topic of today and tomorrow.

The goal is to build a tomb that will contain and shield the dangerous waste from the public for at least 10,000 years. DOE already has spent $6 billion on the project (out of a $12 billion fund) and has a target opening date of 2010. While DOE hasn't settled on a site, Yucca Mountain is the only site undergoing evaluation.

"Some people don't think we can design systems that will last for 10,000 years," Bullen said. "I think we have viable technical solutions, but we haven't resolved the potential political problems."

Bullen is taking part in the politically charged world of nuclear waste, where there are two types of realities -- technical and political.

Technically, Bullen believes it is feasible to bury radioactive waste safely in a mountain. To do so over a period of time, he said, will take careful consideration of a wide range of factors, the most daunting of which is the 10,000-year minimum time frame for the burial site.

Bullen said when he considers the relative risk involved with the alternatives to long-term burial (the waste now is kept in temporary facilities across the United States) and the amount of radioactivity being emitted by unmined uranium ore, he is comfortable with entombment.

Politically, Bullen understands that not many people will volunteer to have the waste buried in their backyards. Even a relatively desolate state like Nevada is not eager to have the project, and critics of the plan say it will leave Nevada with two distinctive "glows" in the desert night.

It's true that no matter where the waste is buried, it will leave an indelible mark on the environment. Extremely radioactive, the high-level nuclear waste, which comes from spent nuclear fuel and dismantled nuclear warheads, will have a significant environmental impact. For example, if buried in Yucca Mountain, the waste will increase the temperature of the mountain to about the boiling point of water (96 C at that elevation). Current temperature is about 20 C.

Bullen was tapped for the nuclear waste board because of his expertise in engineered barrier systems. He has spent the past 10 years studying various containment systems and how they perform in different environments, with different wastes, and over various periods of time. He has conducted laboratory experiments, developed computer simulations and evaluated data to make predictions of long-term container performance.

Containment systems will be a key to ensuring the buried waste doesn't leak and contaminate the area surrounding the repository. The utmost caution must be exercised in selecting both the environment to bury the waste and the materials for entombment.

"We know that in 8,000 to 9,000 years we'll have another Ice Age," Bullen said. "Nevada won't have glaciers, but it will rain a lot more," so the containers holding the waste will have to withstand the wet corrosion as well as the dry oxidation of the first 8,000 years.

Bullen believes his age was an asset in being named to the board. The Clinton administration seems to be looking for a younger tier of board members to replace the outgoing members appointed during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, he said. The board member Bullen is succeeding is in his 80s. Bullen is 40.

Bullen served as a consultant to the board on which he now sits in 1995. In 1992, he consulted with Wayne County officials in south central Iowa on the benefits of building a temporary waste storage facility.

"It could have been a tremendous opportunity to bring economic development to the community," Bullen said. "However, the county didn't see it that way and chose not to continue."

A year ago, Bullen was a guest on a drive-time radio talk show broadcast in Salt Lake City and Provo, Utah. The issue of the day was government plans to transport nuclear waste through those cities.

"The host opened the show by saying his guest was a nuclear engineer and that the DOE was going to transport nuclear waste through the city on the way to Yucca Mountain and wasn't that going to kill everyone," Bullen recalled. Bullen went to great lengths to explain the safety of the casks used to move the wastes. The half hour show ran an hour.

"That's what I want to do as an educator," Bullen said. "I want to make sure the public knows what the risks are. I'm not saying nuclear is risk free. There is a risk. But you have to judge it against what kind of benefit you get. The politics of nuclear waste management make the issue very challenging, but helping to solve this problem can be very rewarding."

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