Chapter 1




If all goes as planned, California will have a low-level radioactive waste dump in the Ward Valley of the Mojave desert in 1996. However, things have not been going as planned. Some residents of Needles, California, twenty miles from the proposed site, along with the Fort Mojave Indian tribe and several non-profit groups, are legally challenging its construction. The site is part of critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise. Some Californians, both citizens and politicians, have voiced concern that the dump would contaminate the Colorado River, also twenty miles distant. Geologists from opposing sides of the issue have come to conflicting conclusions on this question. Portions of the medical establishment vociferously support the dump’s construction, while others oppose it, and the nuclear power industry is strangely silent.

The decision to build the Ward Valley dump allows the investigation of how we, as a society, go about deciding to introduce a new hazard, to take a new risk. Typically the discussion about taking risks has been dominated by those who would weigh out costs and benefits and presume to designate the rational decision for society. Opposition to such a decision process, when expressed by those living near a proposed project is usually pejoratively dismissed as a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) reaction, given neither weight nor respect (Amour 1984). In this thesis I will develop a different way to analyze the situation, one which I believe will better illuminate the dynamics of the conflict.

The driving force for a conflict over nuclear waste in California is clear; there is a legal mandate to build a radioactive waste dump. Federal legislation in the early 1980s passed the responsibility for disposal of low-level radioactive waste to the states in which it was produced. California’s efforts to comply with this legislation culminated in the designation of the Ward Valley as the site for a radioactive waste dump. With this designation a whole set of questions arose. Would residents near Ward Valley acquiesce to its construction? Should California risk having radioactive materials migrate into the Colorado River? Is the site a dangerous new hazard or a necessary risk?

Academic literature on risk and hazard should provide a starting point from which to understand the questions raised by the Ward Valley sight. However, the various strains of analysis in this area—quantitative risk assessment, cognitive risk studies, risk communication, hazards studies—do little to explain the conflicts over Ward Valley. I propose an alternative to the risk and hazard studies, drawing on actor-network theory, narrative theory and some innovative work on risk in geography, sociology, and political science. My contention is that the mechanistic approach typified by risk assessment does not effectively address the myriad concerns surrounding technological hazards. A better way, I will argue, is to investigate the ways in which actors in a conflict appeal to the many shared stories about place, nation, land, identity, science, etc., that constitute what I call the "narrative matrix" upon which everyday decisions and assessments are made. The debate over Ward Valley, and over virtually all political questions, is characterized by attempts by various actors to define the roles that other actors play. These roles, or at least the perception of them, are important because the opinions and decisions of the public as well as those at the highest levels of decision-making are, I argue, based on how the roles, and the plots implicit within them, conform or conflict with the normative elements of the narrative matrix.

Using this approach reveals the underlying dynamics of the conflict over the Ward Valley site. I present three areas of contention and show how dump proponents and opponents try to constrict the options of the other by giving them a role to play. The first of these examples is of the desert tortoise; the second the waste stream; and finally the geology of the Valley. The desert tortoise provides an interesting example of just how important the designation of roles and creation of networks is to the Ward Valley controversy. For the proponents, the desert tortoise serves as a species through which to funnel environmental concerns. The special concern paid to the tortoise (and a mitigation plan for destroying 100 acres of habitat) serve to link the survival of the tortoise with the building of the dump. While opponents also use the tortoise as a point of objection to the dump, the strategy of dump backers is essentially successful: debate over effects on biota is effectively limited to the tortoise, so other (even endangered) species are not considered.

While the desert tortoise shows how environmental concern has been controlled by proponents, the conflict over the make-up of the waste stream shows a battle over a more general public concern. Here, too, creating and enforcing approved roles for the actors is important to the strategy of dump proponents, just as discrediting those roles and the plots that those roles imply is the objective of dump opponents. Essentially, the question is what proportion of the waste destined for Ward Valley comes from the various sectors of society. Dump proponents describe the dump serving the needs of the medical community, and enlist those involved in nuclear medicine to support the facility. However, dump proponents have allegedly grossly overestimated the amount of medical and academic waste while underestimating the amount from utilities.

My final example considers the geological permeability of Ward Valley. Here the debate rages over whether radioactivity will be able to migrate through the ground to the aquifer below and eventually the Colorado River. Three United States Geological Survey (USGS) geologists analyzed the geology of the Ward Valley site and concluded that there were at least three paths through which the Colorado River could become contaminated. The USGS then questioned the validity of this report, not because of faulty scientific methods, but because it had not been peer-reviewed by USGS scientists. In fact, the authors of the Wilshire Report (so named after the first author) had submitted it to the USGS for review, but the agency had refused to review it. In this instance the validity of an expert opinion seems to be tied more to the allowed role of the scientist than any question of methodology.

Describing and bringing into the open the fundamental areas of conflict, and showing that they ultimately rest on appeals to the collective narrative matrix does two things. First, it makes the actions of the actors much more understandable and predictable. Once one understands that the proponents have given the desert tortoise the role of representing environmental concerns, it is understandable why they would invest such effort into addressing the possible problems with their survival. Realizing that proponents wish to appeal to the "expert" and the cultural narrative of the primacy of science, makes it predictable that they would attack any opposing views as unscientific.

The second result has much wider implications for understanding so-called NIMBY conflicts. Being able to see that the actors in the conflict are not acting according to any expressible rational set of rules, but rather appealing to both culturally shared and individually held elements of the narrative matrix reveals that the criteria for relevancy is not, in the final analysis, scientific, rational, or rule-bound. Put another way, NIMBY conflicts are not about quantitative assessments of risk but rather are referenda about what kind of society we will live in. Proponents do not support the project because they think that a world with nuclear power is a good world, and they pretend to place no value on the land of the Ward Valley. Those who oppose the project do so not because of the probability of radioactivity migrating to the groundwater is X percent but because a dump in the Ward Valley does not fit with their narratives about human relations to the land, the role of technology in society, and other complex elements of the narrative matrix that lead to the conclusion that a nuclear dump "just doesn’t go" in the Ward Valley.

With the recognition that support or opposition of a noxious facility by any given person is based not on science, but on the elements of their narrative matrix that address the moral elements of the relations between land, nature, technology, science, and society it is possible to sketch out some of the implications of the different points of view. While it seems that science is often looked to in these conflicts to dictate the "right" decision, its true purpose can only be to understand the implications of decisions made with reference to the narrative matrix, which may include "reason" but does not necessarily do so. From a scientific point of view, one person’s narrative matrix is as "good" as another. What science can do is show the results of past decisions and, to some degree, predict the outcome of future decisions.

Recognizing that risk decisions ultimately rest not on science but on shared elements of individual narrative matrices raises some thorny questions. How can one determine what elements of an individual’s narrative matrix are to be heeded and which elements are to be ignored? Is one narrative matrix better than another? Although these questions suggest that the result of the position I am advocating may be a chaotic relativism, I believe this not to be the case. Rather, this approach recognizes the lineaments of the current situation, and thus allows for more honest discussion. The fight over Ward Valley is not one motivated by percentages or probabilities, but by basic beliefs about nature, technology and society, which are, I contend, expressed through narratives. By no means do I reject science; it has an important role to play in verifying the facts of the particular situation, and bad science is still bad science. But the point is that the conflict runs much deeper, and the heated debate that is initiated by a proposal for noxious facility is one of the few areas of technological society where people can make a statement about the acceptability of technologies. Rather than dismissing the emotions that permeate discourse about Ward Valley as irrelevant, we should, I believe engage them, and realize that they represent important normative statements about the nature of society.

The outline of the thesis is as follows. Chapter Two presents background information on radioactivity and radioactive waste. A brief history of the treatment of radioactive waste in the United States is given, followed by a more detailed summary of the legal actions that led to the choice of the Ward Valley as the preferred site for a nuclear dump in California. Chapter Three explores the academic literature on risk and hazards and suggests the alternative method for explaining the inconsistencies one inevitably finds in siting noxious facilities, based on narrative theory. Chapter Four returns to the example of the Ward Valley and three areas where actors are trying to define roles for others in the conflict, followed by a summary of the legal history of the project, showing the importance of these areas to the outcome of the project. Chapter Five then explores the implications for looking at siting disputes as appeals to elements of the narrative matrix that may be shared among culturally, nationally, or geographically identifiable groups.


Chapter 2