Perhaps the real question at Yucca Mountain is not one of science, but of who we should trust and believe.
After analyzing the backgrounds of the key players at Yucca Mountain, one is struck by the fact that this appears to be a battle of the hard sciences versus the social sciences. Proponents of Yucca Mountain tend to be engineers, scientists or technical managers with experience working in high-tech environments (essentially DOE and its subcontractors). In contrast, the opposition is heavily weighted with lawyers, psychologists, history majors, political scientists and what might be called the soft sciences (concentrated in the political establishment, NWPO's socioeconomic studies and the Washington environmental lobby).
The motivations of these two groups are strikingly different. The hard scientists abhor politics and controversy and would like nothing better than to be left alone to do their job -- i.e. building a repository. The social scientists are in contrast primarily concerned with political issues, sometimes to the exclusion of an understanding of the technical issues. This divergence in motivations - one side focusing on the building of a repository while the other emphasizes politics - is so antagonistic that one can question whether the battle over Yucca Mountain is about mitigating the dangers of radiation, or whether it is about a clash between technocentric versus anthropocentric world views.
The reason this question is important is because we need desperately to determine who represents the best interests of America and indeed, the world as a whole. Some would argue that both sides of this debate have good intentions and that therefore each side has an equal right to not only be heard, but also to have their advice implemented. Unfortunately, good intentions often have unintended negative consequences. It is the thesis of this book that the unintended consequences of the politicalization of science, as especially exemplified by the
EQUITY VS THE ELITE
The "equity" argument voiced by Nevada's politicians and the socioeconomic consultants to NWPO has muddied the question of credentials and politicized the science at Yucca Mountain. It is only equitable, it is claimed, that the least advantaged man exposed to risk should influence technical questions regarding risk. Loosely based on Rawlsian Ethics, the theory that the "least advantaged man" should have controlling input over complex technical issues, irrespective of his expertise, calls into question our ability to safely and economically design and build complex technologies.
On the surface the equity argument seems plausible, but most people understand that the reason one hires experts to develop projects like Yucca Mountain is because they are experts. Moreover, proponents of equity are not necessarily forwarding the interests of the disenfranchised. What seems to have arisen is a pseudo-technical class of lawyers, sociologists, politicians and assorted policy addicts who lack technical expertise but nevertheless want a final say in such matters, generally finding leverage as advocates for some disadvantaged population.
Consequently, protest against Yucca Mountain has become a social and political movement as much as a question of safe technology. The wisdom of allowing social scientists and lawyers (often acting as self-appointed surrogates for the common people) to have veto power over technical projects is a matter of concern. There is the possibility that these social advocates may be more interested in accumulating power for themselves than in representing the popular will. The question this raises is whether society wishes to have its technology designed by non-technologists, as appears to be the intent of some of the protestors against Yucca Mountain, or whether we trust our technologists to conduct sophisticated science free from armchair quarterbacking.
The bottom line is that using equity as the final arbiter of technological issues can paradoxically lead not only to a lessening of the opportunities available to the elite, but also to the impoverishment of the "least advantaged" men and women this philosophy is designed to protect. This is because advanced technologies are generally expensive to begin with, at first an advantage only to elites (airplanes, railroads, automobiles), although in the long term their main beneficiaries are the least advantaged. Ironically, elite political advocates may be the only ones who truly gain from egalitarianism.
Transforming Yucca Mountain from a technological question into a debate over social equity issues has created problems for repository opponents. A lack of technical credentials forced them to overstep their expertise in an attempt to legitimize their political positions. This led to situations in which political geographers, psychologists, lawyers, English and history majors frequently issued statements on nuclear technology though they lacked any training or experience in that field.
While the DOE and its sub-contractors working at Yucca Mountain have many problems of their own regarding their management of the project, there is a qualitative difference between their failures (typically bureaucratic inefficiencies) and the lapses of their opponents (often profound scientific naivete). DOE and its affiliated scientific support may not always have Nevada's best interests in heart, but they are credentialed to the hilt in the fields in which they conduct science.
Watchdog institutions in academia, government and the media have not questioned credentials sufficiently, denying the public vital feedback. For example, though Nevada's media have continually questioned the credibility of DOE and its subcontractors, the expertise of NWPO's consultants, the environmental groups and the State's political establishment have never been seriously investigated.
The lack of validation of the credentials of consultants hired by Nevada's Nuclear Waste Project Office led to dubious science. For example, NWPO's funding of a political geographer to discuss the retrieval of nuclear waste from bore holes clearly overstepped proper guidelines. The use of a sociologist to give comments on the radiation deaths and nuclear radiation risks at Three Mile Island (though no fatalities have been recorded there nor expected) on the NWPO sponsored radio show was also suspicious. In general, a high school history teacher as executive director of the Nuclear Waste Project Office, a housewife turned anti-nuclear protestor becoming the chief nuclear information officer for the State, a history major acting as their chief transportation consultant, ad infinitum, all contributed to a lack of confidence in the science conducted by NWPO.
The lack of technical sophistication on the part of Nevada's various environmental lobbies was also ignored by the media. For example, the main activists for Citizen Alert are Bob Fulkerson (an English major) and Chris Brown (a religion major). Yet their pronouncements on the engineering validity of subjects ranging from hydrogen-solar generators, to nuclear rockets, to Yucca Mountain were accepted by the media without question.
While everyone has a right to voice an opinion on the subject of Yucca Mountain, not all those opinions should carry the same weight. Technical experience and hands-on work with a technology do count in the real world. Consequently, if sanity is to be brought to the study of the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, one of the first steps which must be taken is for the credentials and competence of the competing voices to be judged. This verification of competence must occur in government, in the media, in academia and in industry.
The best way to demonstrate this problem of credentials is to take inventory of the prime actors on both sides of the Yucca Mountain controversy. What becomes quickly clear is that there is an obvious difference in the backgrounds of those on opposite sides of the fence. Pro-nuclear forces tend to be either scientific experts in fields related to nuclear energy, business leaders or project managers who have built successful enterprises and relied on engineering analysis in the past. In contrast, the anti-nuclear forces as a whole have rarely engaged in the building of any enterprise (even solar enterprises!). What we have is a battle between doers and critics.
To demonstrate these differences, we have assembled a players program covering the actors on the Yucca Mountain stage. Things which should be noted:
1) Only a small minority of the opposition have experience working for industry (much less the nuclear industry) and consequently they possess little hands-on-feel for technology.
2) The opposition is top heavy with lawyers, politicians, social scientists and the soft sciences who tend to view the entire world from a political perspective.
3) Few of the opposition appear to have been actively engaged in the design or construction of any major engineering structures.
While there are those who will argue that lawyers, politicians and social scientists play an irreplaceable part in the technical study of Yucca Mountain, this argument does not carry much force. One could equally suggest that lawyers, politicians and social scientists should participate when someone's car is fixed (it is certain they would find themselves a niche in the garage), however no one is insane enough to suggest that their own car be fixed in this way. Allowing a national nuclear waste repository to be designed by politically motivated technical dilettantes carries significantly greater risks.