The University Record, March 1, 1993

Brewer: Humans must be counted in ecosystems everywhere

By Mary Jo Frank

The “wicked problem” of disposing of nuclear waste, notes Garry D. Brewer, clearly illustrates the tight bonds existing between the environment, the economy and ethics.

Lecturing Feb. 19 as part of Sigma Xi’s Ethics and Science Lecture Series, Brewer offered four guiding principles to deal with environmental inquiries based on the nation’s experience in trying to dispose of nuclear waste.

• Focus on the environment in its entirety as well as its constituent parts.

• Count humans as integral features of ecosystems everywhere.

• Seek consensus and agreement between diverse interests.

• Base debate on full and honest disclosure of what is known and, more importantly, what is not known.

Brewer, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment, noted that the nuclear waste problem, with us for more than 35 years, remains unsolved despite substantial scientific consensus that geologic disposal presents less risk to public health or the environment than any alternative means.

The problem will become worse as the nation’s 111 commercial nuclear power plants move toward predictable shut-downs in the next 20 to 30 years, he said.

The plants generate almost 21 percent of the nation’s electric power, but do so at a “cost” of about 87,000 metric tons of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods.

This spent fuel is accumulating in temporary water-storage facilities at 70 different sites nationwide, awaiting a break in the waste disposal gridlock—“an impasse rooted in large part in human perception and caused by increasing amounts of related fear and distrust,” Brewer said.

Current plans call for construction of a mined geologic repository that will isolate the waste for at least 10,000 years. A complex system must be designed, developed and implemented, Brewer said, to package, collect, store, transport and dispose of the waste from both public utilities and defense facilities all over the country.

Brewer said a 1987 decision by Congress to name Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the sole site to be investigated enraged Nevadans. Lack of public confidence in the U.S. Department of Energy, as reported in surveys by the Gallup organization, mirrors Nevada’s level of opposition but at a slightly lower level.

“People are threatened by radioactive waste and they must be taken seriously in the decision process. The sense of threat may be way out of proportion to the reality, but it does not matter. The perception becomes, for all practical purposes, the reality to be managed,” Brewer said.

The ethical necessity is clear: “Those affected must participate in all aspects of the decision-making process, including particularly the generation and interpretation of information.”