Chapter 2




This chapter is necessary to provide a basic working knowledge of issues discussed in the thesis. The chapter is composed of three parts. First is an introduction to the physics of radioactivity-what it is, how it is created, and how it affects life. The information presented here has been summarized from a number of sources (Contreras 1992; Fox 1965; Glueckauf 1961; League of Women Voters Education Fund 1985; League of Women Voters Southern California Task Force 1985, 1987; Mawson 1965). Second is a brief history of the way radioactive waste has been dealt with in the United States. Third is a more in depth explanation of the legal process that would culminate in the construction of a low—level radioactive waste dump in the Ward Valley.

The Physics of Radioactive Waste

An atom is radioactive if it spontaneously emits either particles or energy rays. Recall (from high school chemistry class) that an atom of an element has a certain number of protons (particles with a positive electrical charge) and neutrons (particles with no charger) in its nucleus, surrounded by electrons (much smaller particles with a negative charge). The atomic number of the element is determined by the number of protons: all atoms of carbon have 6 protons. The sum of protons and neutrons is the atomic weight. Carbon, for example, normally has 6 neutrons, so it has an atomic weight of 12 and is called carbon—12. Sometimes, either naturally or through human action, atoms of an element occur with extra neutrons. The different forms of the element are called isotopes. An isotope of carbon is carbon—14, carbon with two extra neutrons. Isotopes can be stable or unstable. Unstable isotopes can spontaneously break down, emitting radiation, and are therefore called radioisotopes. When a radioisotope decays three different kinds of radiation can be emitted: alpha, beta, and gamma.

Alpha radiation is the equivalent of a helium nucleus, that is, two protons and two neutrons, shot out of the decaying atom. It is the most energetic radiation, but the least penetrating. A sheet of paper can stop an alpha particle. Beta radiation is an uncharged particle the size of an electron emitted during decay. Both alpha and beta radiation are usually accompanied by gamma radiation, which is composed of electromagnetic waves similar to X—rays.


Type of Radiation

Half Life


alpha, gamma

4.5 billion years


alpha, gamma

24300 years



5600 years


beta, gamma

28 years



12.3 years



5.27 years



14.2 days


beta, gamma

8.05 days



3.82 days



64 hours


beta, gamma

24 seconds

When an atom of a radioisotope decays it becomes a new element. When uranium—238 decays it emits alpha and gamma radiation and becomes thorium—234. The speed of decay is measured as a half—life: the period during which half of the amount of the isotope present will have decayed. For uranium—238 the half—life is 4.5 billion years. So in 4.5 billion years one pound of uranium—238 will have decayed to one half pound of uranium—238 and the other half will be at various points along a decay chain on the way to lead—206. Half—lives vary from billions of years to seconds (Table 2-1).

Radiation Measurement

There are two ways in which radiation is conventionally measured, by activity and by dose. Activity is a count of the rate at which an isotope decays. Its measure is a Curie, which is equal to the activity of one gram of radium, 37 billion disintegrations per second. The standard metric system prefixes are used to indicated lower levels of activity, e.g., a microcurie is 37 thousand disintegrations per second. Radioactive waste measured by activity indicates only the cumulative rate of disintegration, and nothing about the make—up of the waste in terms of types of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma) or its half—life. This distinction becomes important later.

The other way to measure radiation is to refer to the amount of energy absorbed from it, known as the dose. There are three measures of dosage, the roentgen, the rad, and the rem. A roentgen is a measure of the amount of energy lost in the air by the passage of gamma or X rays. A rad (radiation absorbed dose) measures the amount of energy absorbed by a material. A rem (roentgen equivalent man) measures the amount of damage to human tissue from a dose of radiation. It is found by multiplying a dose of radiation in roentgens by a multiplier (QF) for its quality factor (formerly called the relative biological effectiveness). The QF for X— and gamma rays is 1, between 1.7 and 2 for beta particles and 20 for alpha particles. In this way the rem takes into account the varying effects on living tissue of different types of radiation. However, there is considerable debate over whether these comparisons are valid.

Making Radioactive Waste

Radioactive waste is, quite simply, refuse that contains more than a designated threshold of radioactive materials. (See Miller 199; Clifford 1994d for the side effects of below—threshold contamination.) Government regulations make distinctions among several different types of radioactive waste. The characterization of the sources and make—up of these waste types is the subject of much controversy and is discussed in more detail later. However, here I present a brief introduction to the various classifications of radioactive waste.

Spent Fuel. Fuel rods that have been used in nuclear reactors for three or four years no longer function efficiently. They are highly radioactive and generate large amounts of heat. Spent fuel must be handled remotely and shielded by lead, concrete, or water. Spent fuel can be reprocessed to recover usable uranium and plutonium from other fission products. While other countries are actively pursuing reprocessing, there are currently no commercial reprocessing plants in the United States. However, the Department of Defense does reprocess its spent fuel.

High—level Waste. High—level waste is produced in the chemical reprocessing of fuel rods. This process yields a highly radioactive liquid, which can be treated to yield a sludge or calcine, a dry granular material. High—level waste also generates high quantities of heat and requires extensive shielding and remote handling.

Transuranic waste. As the name suggests, transuranic wastes contain radioisotopes with atomic numbers greater than that of uranium (92). The radioisotopes must also have half—lives greater than 20 years and be present in concentrations greater than 100 nanocuries per gram. They are formed primarily from the reprocessing of spent fuel and the use of plutonium in constructing nuclear weapons.

Uranium Mill Tailings. These earthen residues are created in large volumes in uranium mining. They have low concentrations of naturally occurring radioactive elements, including thorium—230 and radium—226, which decays to emit the radioactive gas radon—222.

Low—level Waste. Low—level waste is defined by default-it is all radioactive waste not classified as uranium mill tailings, waste, high—level waste, spent nuclear fuel, or byproduct material. Some transuranic wastes are classified as low—level if they fall below an arbitrary concentration of radioactivity. That line was set in 1980 at 10 nanocuries per gram, which was selected because it is the highest naturally occurring concentration of radium—226 and because radium—226 is an alpha emitter and so resembles the danger posed by the transuranics (Montange 1987:357). In 1982, the cut—off was increased by a factor of 10 to minimize the volume of low—level waste (Montange 1987:357). Low—level waste is subsequently divided into three categories according to activity as shown in Table 2-2 (from Contreras 1992).

Waste Type

Avg. Radioactivity (Ci/ft3)

Volume in 1989 (103ft3)

Class A



Class B



Class C



Low—level radioactive waste has many sources, including utilities, industry, government, universities, scientific laboratories, and medicine. Nuclear power plants generate the majority of low—level radioactive waste in the United States. (52.1% by volume, 83.7% by activity) During operation, a nuclear plant produces wet low—level waste in the form of sludge and filters. Dry waste comprises gloves, clothing, and other supplies used in day—to—daily operation. Upon decommissioning the structural components of the plant are mostly classified as low—level waste and represent enormous quantities (about 105 ft3 per plant) (Contreras 1992). Industrial low—level waste (34% by volume, 14.7% by activity) results from production of smoke detectors (although photoelectric models do not use radioactive sources), enamel glazes, illuminated signs, luminous watch dials, and measurement devices. In addition, waste from producing radioactive chemicals for pharmaceutical research is usually classified as industrial. The government stores most of its own low—level waste (resulting from energy and weapons production and research). However, two percent of government low—level wastes is stored at commercial dumps (contributing 7.0% by volume, 1.4% by activity) (Contreras 1992). Academic research is responsible for a very small proportion of low—level waste (4.1% by volume, 0.2% by activity), mainly from biomedical research, and from experimental nuclear reactors or accelerators. Nuclear medicine is also responsible for a small amount of the low—level waste stream (2.1% by volume, <1.0% by activity) (Contreras 1992).

Health Effects

The health effects of low—levels of radiation (i.e., the amounts most likely to come from low—level waste) have proved to be elusive, and present considerable difficulties to the researcher. Health effects from low exposures to radiation (usually cancer) often do not manifest themselves until long after the exposure, leaving little evidence to tie the exposure to the cancer. However, epidemiological studies and research on larger doses have provide ample evidence to discuss the mechanism and statistical realities of the health effects of low doses of radiation.

Radiation is more technically known as ionizing radiation, because as it passes through matter it strips electrons from atoms, leaving them as ions. In the cell these ions can cause damage, most importantly to the DNA. As a cell accumulates damage to the DNA it runs an increasing risk of affecting its function. When the DNA is damaged in such a way that the regulation of cell division is impaired a cancer develops. This is the principal danger from low doses of radiation. Another danger is the destruction of DNA in sperm and ova, which lead to physical and mental birth defects.

While most scientists agree that ionizing radiation causes cancer, there is considerable debate about the relationship between dose and illness (Kaku & Trainer 1982). Some scientists assume that there is a linear relationship between dose and cancer, so they estimate the risks of cancer from low doses of radiation by linearly extrapolating the relationship found at high radiation doses. This approach assumes that there is no safe level of radiation and that the mechanism of destruction is the same across dosage levels. A second set of scientists suggest that the relationship is quadratic, meaning that there is less damage at low levels of radiation, claiming that the linear hypothesis overestimates the risks. This hypothesis derives from the claim that the cell can repair damage done by low doses. Still others maintain the supralinear hypothesis that the linear relationship underestimates the risks. They suggest that low levels of radiation are more dangerous because they weaken and damage the cell, while high doses kill the cell outright (Gould & Goldman 1991). Because of the lack of consensus over the type of relationship between dose and illness for radiation, there is a considerable, quite acrimonious, debate over the health effects of low level radiation in particular (e.g., Morgan 1982; Gofman 1982; Cohen 1982; Gould & Goldman 1991; Caldicott 1994). However, in regulating radiation exposure, the government guidelines tended to underestimate the danger of low level radiation. This attitude is best understood in the context of the history of radioactive waste in the United States.

A History of Radioactive Waste in the U. S.

The discovery of radiation near the turn of the century sparked immediate interest in the scientific community and in the general public. Despite widespread use of radiation in both legitimate and quack treatments, the disposal of wastes from these processes was not regulated by the American government. Only in 1932 did the U. S. government initiate controls on radiation in consumer products, but did not address waste disposal.

The amounts of waste in the pre—WWII era were relatively small, truly large quantities of waste were first created during the effort to build an atomic bomb. While the Manhattan project created much radioactive waste, thinking about its disposal was a low priority in the middle of a war (Lilienthal 1980:78). The disposal of low—level waste from the Manhattan project stimulated little concern; it was disposed by "open burning, shallow land burial, closed incinerations, evaporation, pouring wastes in to the sewer system, or storing them for later disposal" (in Contreras 1992).

Regulation pre—1980

Radioactive waste was officially regulated by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. The Act created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), making it responsible for the disposal of radioactive waste. The approach of the AEC in its early years was that disposal was relatively non—problematic. It followed a "dilute and disperse" mentality. During the 1940s and 1950s the AEC opened five low-level sites for shallow land burial: Hanford, WA; Idaho Falls, ID; Los Alamos, NM; Oak Ridge Tennessee; and Savannah River, SC. The sites were clearly chosen for their proximity to weapons production and research facilities rather than any geologic or environmental characteristics. Also, from 1946—1967, the AEC authorized ocean dumping of radioactive waste. During this period approximately 90,000 55—gallon drums of waste were dumped into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico (Levin 1989; Los Angeles Times 1990a).

In 1954 more sources of waste were added as the AEA was amended to allow the development of commercial nuclear power and the use of radioisotopes in medicine and industry. Waste disposal generated some concern for the new industry, as was seen in Congressional hearings on the new industry. In 1955 the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy of the Congress heard testimony on the "Development, Growth, and State of the Atomic Energy Industry." Earle Mills, representing a large nuclear contractor, stated that "[I]t is clear that the disposal of radioactive waste products will become of great importance when nuclear power plants compete economically with those using fossil fuels. We feel that incentives in the area need to be increased in order to assure the economic culmination of nuclear power." (United States Congress 1955:492) He later stated that "this problem of waste disposal is going to become a serious problem" (United States Congress 1955:495). In the same hearing concern was voiced about the public health consequences of radioactive wastes. Despite these concerns, the attitude was that the methods of waste disposal were adequate, but expensive (United States Congress 1955:504). Compared to the 800 pages of testimony, the few instances of doubt about the waste issue were insignificant.

A similar hearing in 1957 produced the following testimony from the Atomic Energy Commission:

One of the important unknowns in the calculation of the economics of power production from nuclear fuels is the eventual cost of disposing of waste products. […] A full year’s successful operation at KAPL [a research lab], in which low—level wastes have been discharged to the Mowhawk River, has demonstrated more definitively than any prior experience the practicality, safety, and economy of such operations. (United States Congress 1957:123)

Later in the hearing R. A. Brightson, president of Nuclear Science and Engineering Corp., testified that "the state of the art is such that storage of radioactive wastes appears to be adequate from a practical standpoint and will not contribute substantially to the cost of nuclear power" (United States Congress 1957:604).

The failure of the government to address the issue of nuclear waste in any realistic way during these early years can be linked to the political environment. In 1955, Thomas Murray, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, stated: "We must not let anything interfere with this series of [nuclear] tests—nothing" (Brown 1991:145). The Cold War and the nuclear arms race that was its battlefield reduced the issue of waste to insignificance.

In 1959, to meet the increasing demand of the new nuclear industry, the AEC set up the "agreement state" program, which allowed states to regulate the disposal of low—level radioactive waste in the state as long as its guidelines were at least as stringent as those of the AEC (Ashe 1993). Then in 1962 the AEC allowed commercial firms to set up and run low—level radioactive waste dumps under the "agreement state" authority. Under this arrangement six dumps were opened between 1962 and 1971 (Table 2-3).




Beatty, NV



Maxey Flats, KY



West Valley, NY



Richland, WA



Sheffield, IL



Barnwell, SC



There were, however, a number of problems with the dumps. Three of them were forced to close during the 1970s when they leaked radioactive materials to the surrounding environment. The dump in West Valley, NY, was closed when increased radioactivity was found in the ground water and as far away as Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. In Maxey Flats, KY, plutonium leaked to wells off the dump site. The Sheffield, IL site was also forced to close because of groundwater contamination.

These problems assailed the pre—1970s attitude that radioactive wastes posed only a minor problem that had a technical solution. Public opinion polls during the 1960s had found few people worried about radioactive waste, but by the mid—1970s a majority considered the wastes to be a major problem (Caufield 1989:317). As the decade opened, rumblings of concern about the nuclear industry and about all kinds of radioactive waste were found in a series of articles in Science that raised the question of nuclear safety (Gillette 1971; 1972). In the following years, numerous books written for the educated public took both sides of the issue in the following years: Olson’s Unacceptable Risk: The Nuclear Power Controversy (1976), Beckmann’s The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear (1976), Nader and Abbots’s The Menace of Atomic Energy (1977), and the original edition of Caldicott’s Nuclear Madness (1978/1994).

When the Three Mile Island accident happened in 1979 there was already reason for concern about waste disposal, and nuclear power in general. At that time three sites were still accepting low—level waste, Beatty, Bramwell and Richland. In July of 1979 the governor of Nevada closed the Beatty site because of problems with shipment practices-one truck arrived on fire, another badly leaking (Ashe 1993). In December, the Washington site was temporarily closed because of safety violations, leaving South Carolina to pick up the slack-most of the nation’s radioactive waste. South Carolina was not pleased with its role as dump for the nation and pressure from the governors of South Carolina, Washington, and New York made it clear that federal action would be required to address the issue of low—level radioactive waste.

Low—Level Radioactive Waste Act of 1980 and 1985 Amendments

In response to these concerns, Congress passed the Low—Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act in December of 1980. The federal solution was to give the responsibility for low—level waste to the states. The act made each state responsible for providing for the disposal of all non—weapons related low—level radioactive waste produced within its boundaries. Congress deemed that low—level radioactive waste was best managed on a regional basis and encouraged states to form regional groups, called compacts, which were to be ratified by Congress. Each compact would have its own dump site and beginning January 1, 1986, the compact could exclude waste generated outside the compact from its dump site This would eventually happen in 1994 when South Carolina shut its dump to states not members of its compact (Clifford 1994c).

By 1983 seven regional compacts had been submitted to Congress, three of them including the operating low—level radioactive waste dump sites. The other four had not selected dump sites by December of 1985, so Congress passed a new law. The Low—Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments of 1985 ratified the seven regional compacts but forced the compacts with operating sites to accept non—compact waste for another seven years. To encourage other compacts to find waste sites the law allowed surcharges to be levied on out—of—region generators, starting at $10 per cubic foot, increasing to $20 in 1988 and $40 in 1990. A rebate could be paid on the surcharges if the compact or state met the following series of deadlines in their own siting process:

• July 1, 1986: State must either join a compact or show intent to develop its own disposal site.

• January 8, 1988: Compact must name a host state; compact must prepare siting plans.

• January 1, 1990: Compact must file a license application for the site, or the governor of each non—sited state must certify to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the state will provide storage, disposal, or management of its own waste. If this deadline is not met, sited states may impose a penalty surcharge of up to $160 per cubic foot on non—sited state generators.

• January 1, 1993: A state that has not provided for disposal capacity must take possession of low—level radioactive waste generated in the state. If it fails to do so, the rebate of surcharges that would have gone to that state will instead go directly to its generators to help them provide for low—level radioactive waste storage capacity.

With these two laws low—level radioactive waste became the responsibility of the states.

Congress also took action to address the problem of high—level wastes. In January 1983 the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was signed into law by President Reagan. In this legislation the federal government took responsibility for the disposal of high—level radioactive waste. It set a schedule for siting, constructing, and operating high—level waste repositories, defined the decision—making relations between federal, state and Native American governments, and required the establishment of a fund to cover disposal costs.

The process of choosing a high—level disposal site is similar to that which designated with Ward Valley, but the differences between low and high level wastes preclude considering them as identical. Analysis of the high—level site selection process would be fruitful, but I will now constrain myself to low—level waste and the example of Ward Valley. I turn now to examine California’s siting process in more detail.

The Road to Ward Valley

After the Low—Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980, California took two years to respond to its new responsibilities. In 1982 Assembly Bill 1513 acknowledged California’s legal responsibility and directed the Department of Health Services (DHS) to develop an overall plan for the management, treatment, and disposal of low—level radioactive waste generated within California. It also required the DHS to plan for interim storage if out—of—state storage facilities were closed, develop a waste classification scheme, designate regions of the state that would meet established siting criteria, study methods of reducing low—level radioactive waste generation, and appoint an advisory committee on low—level radioactive waste. Senate Bill 342 of 1983 established procedures for the licensing of a private company to locate, develop and operate a low—level radioactive waste disposal facility. It also authorized the governor to negotiate with other compacts to ensure access to existing dumps for California wastes.

By mid—1984 DHS had received four applications to become the dump licensee. The applicants were Chem—Nuclear, operator of the South Carolina site, US Ecology, operator of the Washington and Nevada sites, Westinghouse Electric, and a joint venture between Pacific—Nuclear Systems Inc. and Morrison—Knudson Co. Inc. The applications were ranked according to demonstrated ability to:

• Meet established financial standards;

• Provide the best concept for site development and operations;

• Present and effective program to deal with concerns of the public regarding establishing a low—level radioactive waste disposal site;

• Establish a reasonable schedule of charges for disposal of low—level radioactive waste (California Senate Office of Research 1993).

Westinghouse was ranked first as license designee and declined. Chem—Nuclear then successfully filed a suit to block a new round of applications and also declined designation. Morrision—Knudson withdrew from the joint venture disqualifying Pacific—Nuclear. The lowest ranked choice, US Ecology, was then offered and accepted as license designee in December of 1985 (Goldstein 1986).

With a contractor designated to build a dump California had still not joined a regional compact. Governor’s negotiations under the auspices of SB 342 had yielded a deal for a two—state compact with Arizona, but the bill died in a conference committee of the California Legislature during the 1983—84 session. It was reported that political battles over amendments to place the dump in one or another assemblyman’s district led to its demise (Gillam 1985). The Low—Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments of 1985 defined a compact as two or more states, ruling out the possibility of California not joining a compact and excluding out—of—state waste from its site.

Then in 1987 Assembly Bill 1000 ratified the South—Western Low—Level Radioactive Waste Compact. The compact states included California, Arizona, South Dakota, and North Dakota, with California agreeing to provide the disposal facility for the first 30 years. (Although compacts are described as regional management of waste, there is no requirement that they contain geographically contiguous states.) The compact requires California to ensure that public health and safety are protect in siting the facility and that charges for disposal are sufficient to pay for safe disposal and long—term care of the dump site. In addition, the bill created an administrative body, the South—Western Low—Level Radioactive Waste Commission with one member from each state, one from the county hosting the waste site, and enough additional members to give the host state a 51% majority. With the compact in place, and US Ecology in place as license designee, the siting process was under way.

In 1982 the Department of Health Services had established basic screening criteria consistent with those made by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They designated areas to be avoided in the interest of long—term isolation of low—level radioactive waste, including population centers, areas subject to runoff, flooding, erosion or subsidence, areas where groundwater would intrude into buried waste, earthquake faults and volcanic areas, and areas with known natural resources. The DHS did a large scale screening of the state, eliminating areas that: were agricultural or commercial, were projected to have a population of 1,000 or more per square mile in 2000 AD, received more than 10 inches of rainfall per year, or were National or state parks, forests and wildlife refuges. This initial screening eliminated large portions of the state, leaving the largest areas in Riverside, San Bernadino, and Inyo counties. The process was continued by US Ecology as it became the license designee in 1985.

As the new contractor, US Ecology further narrowed the site possibilities to fourteen desert basins in the Mojave desert using the Nuclear Regulatory Commission criteria (Goldstein 1986). They then hired the League of Women Voters Southern California Regional Taskforce to form a citizens advisory committee to consider 18 sites, the original fourteen plus four proposed by interested parties. The committee was to weigh the selection criteria and propose three to five sites for further study. During 1986—1987, at the same time the citizens advisory committee met, US Ecology held public meetings in three locations in Riverside, San Bernadino, and Inyo counties. Then, in February 1987 US Ecology announced, based on the recommendations of the advisory committee and their own findings, that it had selected three sites for further study: Ward Valley, Silurian Valley near Baker, and Panamint Valley in Inyo County (Weintraub 1987). Fenner Valley and Danby were selected as secondary sites.

After a year of detailed site studies US Ecology chose the Ward Valley as the proposed dump location. This proposal was made in the form of a License Application and a Proponent’s Environmental Assessment. With the choice of Ward Valley as the site there was a series of official steps that would lead to the ultimate construction of a dump. According to the California Environmental Quality Act, DHS would produce an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). Because the Ward Valley is federal land, the Bureau of Land Management would write an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act. In reality these two documents would be issued jointly as an EIR/S by a private contractor. After consideration of public comment, the final EIR/S would be published. The Department of Health Services would then make its decision to license US Ecology to build a low—level radioactive waste dump. Because federal statutes require states to own the land for low—level radioactive waste dump sites, the Bureau of Land Management would then transfer the land to the State Lands Commission and US Ecology would construct the dump and begin operation.

The process, however, would not be this straightforward. At this point-the selection of Ward Valley as the site-the story becomes more complex. From a legal standpoint, the siting process faced a designated series of steps, designed to protect the health and welfare of the public and the environment, and based on scientific inquiry. However, there is significant latitude both for public influence of political officials to complicate the process and for independent legal action contesting the actions or conclusions of any one of the actors. With the designation of the Ward Valley site in 1987 California faced a decision about whether to introduce a new hazard. Would the state decide to take the risk of building a low—level radioactive waste dump?

I turn in the next chapter from the explicit example of Ward Valley to more general writings about risk and hazard. I ask how we can understand reactions to risk and hazard and decisions to take risks, and whether the various academic approaches help us to do so. After a review of the literature about risk and hazard, I suggest that it is incomplete for understanding how people and institutions act in the face of risk decisions, and develop an alternative (and perhaps complementary) method for analyzing the situation.


Chapter 3