The Szymanski Theories

In any new scientific venture there is bound to be dissent and alternative interpretations of the data. At Yucca Mountain, one of the most prominent dissenters supporting Nevada's anti-repository position has been Jerry Szymanski, a geologist who worked from 1983 through 1992 for DOE. The reason Szymanski's theories are important is not because of what they reveal about the science of Yucca Mountain (his scientific arguments have been exhaustively rebutted), but because of what it tells us about how NWPO and the State of Nevada have worked with unceasing zealotry to try and sabotage the Yucca Mountain project.

A number of alternative theories were proposed by Szymanski that would have disqualifed the Yucca Mountain site. These theories hypothesized geologic mechanisms that would cause very deep underlying water to rise to the level of the repository causing corrosion of the casks containing the nuclear waste, eventually releasing radionuclides to the groundwater and environment. The media and NWPO liked to portray Szymanski as a whistleblower whose theories weren't given proper attention. Reality is something different.

The best way to dispose of the question of whether Szymanski was an unfairly dismissed whistleblower is to quote from a report from the National Research Council. Seventeen of the most highly respected scientists in the fields capable of responding to the groundwater upwelling theory were brought together in 1990 to look specifically into Szymanski's questions. The National Research Council was organized by the National Academy of Sciences in 1916 and its duty is to resolve debates of just this nature with the best scientific minds at hand, so their conclusions are the best review you can get in the world.

"In response to a request from the DOE, the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council established the Panel on Coupled Hydrologic/Tectonic/Hydrothermal Systems at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, under the auspices of the Board on Radioactive Waste Management, to evaluate 1) if the water table had been raised in the geologically recent past to the level of the proposed mined geological disposal system (repository), and 2) if it is likely that it will happen in the manner described in the DOE staff hydrologist's report (Szymanski) within the 10,000 year period covered by the regulations. The report claimed that such flooding had repeatedly occurred in the past and could be expected to happen again. If that were so, the water could carry still-active radioactive isotopes into the biosphere, a possibility that would lead to serious questions concerning the acceptability of the site. ,P>The panel regarded their task as not only evaluating the staff hydrologist's (Szymanski's) thesis, but also accessing the liklihood that the groundwater level could rise to the height of the repository by any plausible geologic process, or that such a rise had occurred in the past. ["Groundwater at Yucca Mountain: How High Can It Rise", Final Report of the Panel on Coupled Hydrologic / Tectonic / Hydrothermal Systems at Yucca Mountain, National Research Council, 1992, p1]

So the review that was done looked not only at Szymanski's original objections, but at any conceivable geological or meteorlogical means by which the repository could be flooded. This is hardly the profile of a scientific coverup, but was in fact an attempt to bend over backwards to investigate Szymanski's claims. After exhaustive review, the conclusions of the N.R.C. Panel did not support Szymanski's concerns:

"The field evidence evaluated to establish whether or not deep groundwater had been forced up through faults and fractures and onto the earth's surface to produce the mineralized veins and surface deposits fell into six categories: 1) the character of soil development and geomorphic features; 2) hydrologic evidence from active and ancient springs; 3) morphologic and textural evidence from chemically precipitated mineral deposits; 4) the stratigraphic/textural/mineralogic characters of carbonate-cemented breccias; 5) geochemical and mineralogical considerations; and 6) the isotopic composition of the groundwater and mineral deposits.

The panel's overall conclusion was that none of the evidence cited as proof of groundwater upwelling in and around Yucca Mountain could be attributed unequivocally to that process. While some occurrences were equivocal, and some indeterminate based on observation alone, the preponderance of features ascribed to ascending water clearly (1) were related to the much older (13-10 million years old (Ma) volcanic eruptive process that produced the rocks (ash-flow tuffs) in which the features appear, (2) contained contradictions or inconsistencies that made an upwelling ground-water origin geologically impossible or unreasonable, or (3) were classic examples of arid soil characteristics world-wide. [How High Can It Rise, National Research Council, p2]

This should have been the end of the Szymanski controversy. The above conclusions, and many more in the Panel's report not cited here, are an academically polite way of saying Szymanski's theories are full of hot air. After the news conference of April 13, 1992 at which the findings were presented, interviews with a number of the Panel members confirmed their feeling that Szymanski's theories had been given more respect than they deserved. Vice-chair of the Panel, George A. Thompson of Stanford University said "It would take a combined earthquake, plus a volcano, plus a climate change over geologic time to cause the water to rise to the level of Yucca Mountain." [personal communication]

After the news conference, it was interesting to watch the actions of the media, who swarmed Jerry Szymanski, taking notes furiously as he described how he was being forced to resign from DOE because of feelings of moral indignation. Little attention at all was paid the distinguished scholars from the National Research Council who had spent two years conscientiously reviewing Szymanski's theories, but were allowed to slip away to their cars as if all their work had been for naught. Allowing science to be done by swarms of journalists may be a less than proficient way of determining the truth in highly technical matters.

Later chapters, (Chapter 61, Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Meteors and Chapter 62, Groundwater) will cover technical details of groundwater flow at Yucca Mountain more closely, but it should be noted here that Jerry Szymanski's theories have been given a much better review than is presented in the media. In fact, because Yucca Mountain has become a political circus, the Department of Energy has overreacted in this and other inquiries by investigating often irrelevant scientific criticism to exhaustion.

If Szymanski's theories were so thoroughly dismissed by the National Research Council (some might even say ridiculed for their lack of scientific rigor), was Szymanski a quack geologist or were his theories driven by another agenda? A biographical sketch done by William Broad on Szymanski for the New York Times Magazine on November 18, 1990 gives us some insight into what makes Szymanski tick.

"Szymanski grew up in Communist Poland, bright, eager to learn and marked for advancement. He was sent to the University of Warsaw, where he graduated in 1965 with a geology degree. Two years later, he was hard at work on doctoral research and teaching when, in March 1968, he joined students clamoring for economic and social reform. "We wanted a dialogue," he says. "What we saw was brute, bloody force, storm troupers beating people." Students were arrested on charges of "anti-state activities," and hundreds of Jews were fired from newspaper and university posts as the Government blamed them for shortcomings in the Polish economy. Though not Jewish, Szymanski was fed up. The Government was eager to be rid of university agitators. So, in December 1968, he was allowed to board a plane with his wife, baby and two suitcases, bound for the United States.

Penniless, Szymanski went to work as a consultant to the burgeoning nuclear-power industry, helping find and evaluate sites for reactors and related facilities. Paramount in his work was the study of fault lines, breaks in rock strata that can shift and cause earthquakes. In 1972, he landed a job with Dames and Moore, a civil engineering company with a global reputation for site-selection skill. Within some five years, Szymanski became a senior geologist, advising American companies and foreign governments in places like Iran, Korea, Spain and Chile on the geologic feasibility of setting up nuclear reactors. He also worked extensively with Federal regulators in charge with reactor licensing.

Peers held him in high esteem. "He's brilliant," says James G. McWhorter, the senior geologist at Dames and Moore. "One of his greatest talents is the ability to see the forest and the trees."

In 1977, at an international conference in Stockholm, Szymanski got a severe shock. Attending a session on the geologic disposal of used nuclear fuel, he was astonished to hear that the field was in its infancy, with one speaker after another talking only in theoretical terms. Nowhere in the world was there a permanent disposal site for the growing mountain of high-level nuclear waste. "I had been convinced that there was somebody on the other end," Szymanski says. "I was wrong. The fuel cycle was not complete."

In 1982, he switched jobs, intending to address what he considered a looming obstacle to the industry's growth. At Decision Planning Corporation, a private company, he worked on Federal contracts to evaluate the merit of different types of deep geologic disposal. But he found himself only on the periphery of the process. In early 1983, he accepted a job with the Department of Energy itself, though it meant a $20,000 cut in annual pay. "I figured I would have some influence," he says. Soon after, the DOE offered him a position at the Yucca Mountain site, which was starting to undergo intense evaluation.

In February 1984, he arrived at the project offices in Las Vegas, blocks from the swirl of casinos, lights and illusion that make up the strip. Szymanski was one of the unit's four officials. He was in charge of gathering and accessing data from teams of scientists (mainly from the U.S. Geological Survey and various contractors) whose work was to form the basis for evaluating the mountain. Equally important, he was in charge of packaging that data for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Federal body that would be asked to license the nuclear waste repository." [William J. Broad "A Mountain of Trouble", New York Times Magazine, November 18, 1990]

Obviously, Jerry Szymanski is no idiot, he has two years of graduate work in Poland and a sizeable amount of work experience with Dames and Moore. He also specifically chose to work at Yucca Mountain despite a cut in pay, indicating he saw this as an opportunity to make an impact.

From conversations with co-workers from other projects, the consensus seems to be that Szymanski in fact believes his theories about groundwater upwelling at Yucca Mountain are plausible. Yet, other things come out: Szymanski is quick to judge and when challenged seems to have a tendency to defend his actions by claiming other scientists are at fault in their judgement, rather than perhaps admitting his own fallibility. Also, rather than being a positive attribute, his ability to see "both the forest and the trees", suggests to some associates that he is able to develop elaborate hypothesis so full of disjointed facts and dubious connections that there is a question of where the forest ends and where reality begins. This is especially important because many of Szymanski's ideas seem influenced by catastrophe theory, an area of mathematics known for producing elegant theories which are difficult to analyze in the real world because of their complexity. A telling aside is that Szymanski's rising groundwater theories are handwritten on voluminous reams of paper, a curious throwback to the days before computers. What emerges is a picture of a brilliant thinker whose attempt to rewrite the geology at Yucca Mountain has become an intricate web that despite its complexity fails to hold up under scrutiny.

Yucca Mountain is not the first place controversy has surrounded some of Szymanski's theories. His "rock creep" hypothesis at the Ninemile Point #2 reactor in New York (a theory that rock under stress would creep into the foundation of the reactor over time) was met with a lawsuit that was settled out of court for millions. Szymanski's analysis required numerous revisions in the plans made by the architectural firm Stoner -Webster, causing huge cost overruns. There is still contention within the geological field whether Szymanski's theories at Ninemile Point were based on sound science.

Other stories exist that show Szymanski has made dubious calls in interpreting the geology of other sites in the past. This is not to say that Szymanski is incompetent; obviously geological and hydrological analysis is a highly technical field which sometimes verges on the subjective. It does however show that he does make mistakes, a trait that he and the media have not been willing to admit.

Szymanski seems to have been a man on a mission from the beginning. Anyone who accepts a $20,000 pay cut to go from private industry to work for the Department of Energy has made a sizable commitment just for the sake of science and his adopted country, especially when they have a family to support. Also interesting is the mention in the New York Times article of Szymanski's work for Decision Planning Corporation before his work with the Department of Energy. There is no Decision Planning that this researcher can find, but this reference is peculiarly close to the Decision Research that has played a large role as a subcontractor to NWPO in attempting to disrupt the Yucca Mountain project. Decision Research was also involved in the Three Mile Island socioeconomic research and may have been part of a calculated effort by certain academics to derail nuclear energy in America.

After his rebuke by the National Research Council, Szymanski left the Department of Energy in May of 1992 . Later, in November, 1992, he was back in the media battle, again claiming that groundwater periodically rises at Yucca Mountain. This time he was backed by associates who had broken away from the DOE studies


. . . "It's perfectly obvious, very clear to us, that the report by the Academy (NRC) is a very, very bad report," Livingston, who works with Technology Resource Assessment Corp., of Boulder, Colo., using data gathered by DOE scientists. "They've ignored data and misrepresented things," Livingston said. [ Las Vegas Sun, Thursday, Nov. 12, 1992, p6A]