Technical & Socioeconomic Studies

There are two broad groups of oversight studies done by Nevada's Nuclear Waste Project Office regarding Yucca Mountain:

  1. Environmental and engineering sciences conducted by various private contractors, and in part by state institutions like Desert Research Institute, the University of Nevada at Reno and the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
  2. Socioeconomic studies originally directed almost exclusively by a prime contractor called Mountain West which oversaw various socioeconomic subcontractors.

Technical studies done in-state by the Nevada academic community are fairly reliable because this data was hard to manipulate in favor of the anti-nuclear position. However, a number of "ringers" brought in by NWPO to buttress the anti-repository party line make a number of the technical reports suspect. The socioeconomic studies were handled almost exclusively by out-of-state interests in an attempt to steer conclusions against Yucca Mountain and are tainted by the ideological agenda of key researchers. TECHNICAL DIVISION

Technical studies for the state have been relatively unbiased because the state universities and the Desert Research Institute took a firm position early on that their research had to remain academically independent. This required a war of wills with NWPO director Bob Loux who has witheld state funding from those unwilling to tailor their results to his expectations.

For example, hydrology studies were channeled to produce the results expected by Loux and the state politicians. A $1.3 million contract (without request for proposals or competitive bids) was awarded to Technical Resource and Assessment Corporation in Colorado specifically to support a rising groundwater theory. This was despite the existence of a supercomputer center at UNLV, the existence of expert hydrologists at the Desert Research Institute and the universities. Linda Lehman and Associates of Michigan is the state's main hydrological consultant, having received $500,000 in contracts, despite being distant from the problem.

Carl Johnson heads the technical studies section. Equipped with a bachelors in geology and experience working for Jefferson County, Colorado, on hazardous waste issues, Johnson is an adequate bureaucrat but not particularly known for his scientific brilliance. For example, he supports NWPO's position that earthquakes are an eminent threat at Yucca Mountain, though earthquakes are generally minor events at subsurface levels. Most DOE and independant scientists believe heat-pipe condensation and criticality issues are much more significant problems at Yucca Mountain, areas neglected by state researchers.

So determined is the state to avoid reaching favorable results at Yucca Mountain, that they have even refused to build monitoring stations on-site or maintain employees near the repository site, preferring to conduct science from the safety of Carson City. Moreover, the state has blackballed the department of engineering at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas only 90 miles from the site because of a justified fear that some UNLV professors believe Yucca Mountain an acceptable solution.

Consequently, while research conducted by Nevada academic institutions was generally of good quality, the state's technical studies were obviously biased at a macro-level. Some employees for the state, notably geologist Steve Frishman, rarely did science and spent most of their time doing political opposition work. Other anomalies in the conduct of technical oversight will be discussed later during the course of this book. SOCIOECONOMIC DIVISION

Joe Strolin heads the socioeconomic side of NWPO, but research has been primarily driven by outside consultants hired to conduct Nevada's socioeconomic evaluation. The linchpin to the politicalization of the Nuclear Waste Project Office socioeconomic studies stems from the choice of the prime contractor, Mountain West, in 1986. While the selection process that chose Mountain West was exhaustive, the resulting socioeconomic research monopoly that developed locked in the ideology of the researchers as the official Nevada position.

The name Mountain West is a catchall for a group of intricately connected companies and think tanks whose end purpose seems to have been to scuttle nuclear power in America. The nominal contractual obligation of Mountain West Research of Tempe Arizona when it came on the Nevada scene in 1985 was to act as a prime contractor for evaluation of the socioeconomic impact of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository on Southern Nevada. In practice it became a front for academics whose hidden political agenda left little room for an objective evaluation of the scientific risks of nuclear waste. It was Mountain West that was the philosophical seed that changed the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office from an oversightagency into a political advocacy organ.

"On September 13, 1985, the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office (NWPO) formally issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a major socioeconomic study to identify potential impacts to the state and to local communities should a nuclear-waste repository be constructed at Yucca Mountain in Southern Nevada. . . .

The planned Nevada socioeconomic impact study is designed to provide State and local planners with clear and quantifiable answers to questions about the social and economic effects of a nuclear repository on the State, its local governments, and its citizens. . . .

In the cover letter transmitting the RFP to prospective responders, the NWPO stipulated that it is not looking for traditional, run-of-the-mill economic analyses. Rather, the State is seeking innovative approaches that pertain specifically to the unique characteristics of Nevada and its localities. . . ." [Nevada Nuclear Waste Newsletter, Vol. 1, no. 1, December 1985]

Nevada went looking for a non-traditional socioeconomic study and that's what it got in the form of Mountain West. From the beginning, this group to produce not run-of-the-mill scientific investigation of socioeconomic impacts, but sophisticated political advocacy for the anti-nuclear position. What it did not produce was "clear and quantifiable answers to questions about the social and economic effects of a nuclear repository on the State, its local governments, and its citizens." In fact, so unquantifiable were Mountain West's results that Clark County (the most affected county as gateway to Yucca Mountain) opted to ignore the Mountain West results and conduct its own socioeconomic impact assessments, relying on in-house staff. Original data from Mountain West was not available for years after being collected, rendering it useless.

There were three main subcontractors under the Mountain West umbrella: Mountain West itself, Decision Research of Eugene Oregon and Clark Universities Center for the Environment, Technology and Development. There were other subcontractors and consultants such as Planning Information of Colorado and Latir Energy of New Mexico who played roles in the socioeconomic studies, at times pulling in hefty contracts in the process. But we'll see as this story progresses that Decision Research and Clark University played the critical roles in transforming the Yucca Mountain debate into nuclear hysteria.

In the process of studying risk perception, the Mountain West consortium created their own academic discipline of nuclear risk perception analysis, which in the minds of these non-technical social scientists became indistinguishable with the study of nuclear risk. Since these groups came to have a near monopoly in nuclear risk perception studies (they did the groundbreaking socioeconomic research after Three Mile Island accident), their theories, biased with anti-nuclear sentiments, came to replace reality in Nevada. Negative images of Yucca Mountain were reinforced in the minds of Nevadans by the psychologists from Mountain West through a misuse of research polling for political advocacy. This created a virtual reality of fears and nuclear hobgoblins which precluded hard facts and hard science.

The money devoted to Mountain West was no trifling matter, amounting to over $14 million dollars in contracts over nine years. Not only were Mountain West consultants well paid (some billed at $140 per hour), but they were encouraged to used their time to forward their own political agenda (Rawlsian ethics) rather than do the traditional mitigation studies that the citizens of the state expected. As social scientists, one can argue Mountain West composed a powerful team of psychological manipulators, abusing their positions as social scientists to purposefully create a climate of distrust.

Since Mountain West had no compunction about moving into scientific vacuums where other hard-science researchers were hesitant to tread, they came to fill the risk assessment positions for the state, though as sociological scientists they had few credentials to do engineering risk analysis. Since physical scientists tend to avoid politics, while Mountain West viewed itself as energy policy advocates, the power of the sociologists and psychologists grew geometrically as their funding increased.

A speech given March 1993 by James Flynn (formerly of Mountain West and now of Decision Research) and attended by Joe Strolin of the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office and head of the socioeconomic division, gave an opportunity to clarify why it was so important that the socioeconomic studies be done by academics from outside Nevada. Strolin was asked why Nevada's university system did not receive grants to do these studies. His reply was that "There was no one in Nevada qualified to do the work." With fouteen million dollars to spend, it is likely the state could have built a socioeconomic research capability within its Nevada university system that would have overcome any such limitations.

The lack of local sociological expertise to interpret results led to bizarre results. For example, the impact of nuclear imagery on the Nevada resort and gaming industry was studied by Pennsylvanians, though Nevada is foremost in the analysis of gaming impact through the University of Nevada Las Vegas Hotel Management School. Theories that negative nuclear imagery would drive away tourists wholesale, developed particularly by Paul Slovic of Decision Research, flew in the face of thirty years of experience with the Nevada Test Site and a geometrically expanding economy. Eventually, socioeconomic polling done by the state became little more than part of the state's political attack apparatus, free of the constraint of local representation.

Roger Kasperson, a political geographer who led a research group from Clark University as part of the Mountain West consortium, may have provided an even more corrosive force. Early in his carreer, Kasperson had become convinced that sociologists were not bound by objective science but could become advocates for their subjects. This may have fatally compromised the entire socioeconomic research program within Nevada. COMPROMISED SCIENCE

The end result of NWPO's lack of scientific rigor has led to negative effects which extend far beyond the state's borders:

  1. Oversight by Nevada, both socioeconomic and technical, has been compromised by the politicalization of its consultants. This means there is no reliable independent oversight of Yucca Mountain dedicated to the welfare of that Nevada's citizens. This diminishes the validity of the entire Yucca Mountain study.
  2. A precedent has been set for using the psychologists and political geographers of socioeconomic research teams as pro-active political operatives. Large scale technical projects which require socioeconomic review will now need to create higher hurdles against manipulation of socioeconomic studies. Indeed, this has already occurred in New Mexico in regard to the study of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project.