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Judith Lewis’ story “Mountain of Doubt” in the Jan. 19, 2009, issue of HCN provides an admirably accurate and balanced description of the history of Department of Energy-led efforts to establish Yucca Mountain as a safe repository for the nation’s high-level nuclear waste.
Beyond the politics, Lewis explains, “Doubts about Yucca Mountain’s geologic suitability have piled up as well. A panel of scientists put the chances of igneous disruption in the ridgeline’s ancient field of volcanoes at one in 6,250 over the next 10,000 years.” She points out that even if one in 6,250 seems low, “in most of the United States the probability of a volcano erupting is zero.”
I was a member of the panel mentioned by Lewis. A summary of our results was published in Science (Nov. 8, 1996, v. 274, p. 913-914). Our marching orders (10 of us selected as experts in volcanology) were to determine the probability that an igneous dike (a sheet of molten magma) would intersect the repository footprint in the coming 10,000 years. I voiced concern about what the consequences to the repository would be if a dike were to feed a violent volcanic eruption. A style of eruption called phreatomagmatic (during which 2,000 degree Fahrenheit magma encounters groundwater and thus triggers violent steam explosions) could be particularly damaging to the repository.