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Thompson chairs NAS committee caught in political barrage
STANFORD -- When Stanford geophysics Professor George Thompson told a fellow geophysicist that he was about to take on the chairmanship of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review committee, Thompson commented, "This may take a few months out of my life."
"A lot more than that, George," the colleague said, with what turned out to be 20- 20 foresight. Thompson was about to become involved in a year-long process that combined staid scientific hearings on the safety of storing low-level nuclear wastes with political theater, as activists and local residents protested the idea of such a storage facility.
On the national scene, the 17 members of his committee were caught in a clash of cultures, as political definitions collided with scientific ones over the meaning of bias and objectivity. In the process, two U.S. senators and the editorial boards of two newspapers impugned the integrity of the National Academy of Sciences itself.
Reflecting on the process a week after delivering the NAS committee's May 11 report, Thompson had some advice for his colleagues. Each year, about 6,000 U.S. scientists and engineers -- many from Stanford -- serve on committees formed by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the NAS. "Scientists have a real duty to respond to the invitation to serve on these committees," he said, "and not to abrogate the responsibility to someone less knowledgeable."
Thompson cautioned scientists responding to that invitation, however, to evaluate what is asked of them. "Don't underestimate the time it may consume," he said, "and decide: Is this a substantial, important topic that may influence this and future decisions?"
Ward Valley report
For the panel that became known as the Ward Valley Committee, Thompson says those criteria were met. The NAS formed the committee at the request of Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who asked for the report to help him make a policy decision about whether to turn over land in the Mojave Desert to the State of California for a proposed dump site for low-level nuclear wastes.
Like 31 other states, California currently has nowhere to store these contaminated materials, which range from test tubes and rubber gloves from medical facilities that use radiation to treat disease, to rags, tools and decontamination solutions from nuclear plants. "Low-level" wastes are radioactive, but either the contamination is very dilute or the radioactivity has a short half-life so the contamination will wear off within a few dozen years. Such wastes are stacking up in more than 800 temporary sites across the state, most in urban areas -- including at Stanford, where they are kept in heavily monitored storage at the Environmental Safety Facility. (See story, page xx.)
The committee was asked to dig into seven scientific questions, most about whether radiation could seep into groundwater from the site at Ward Valley near Needles, Calif., and eventually reach the Colorado River, 20 miles away. Its members found that it was "highly unlikely" that radioactivity could reach groundwater through the 700 feet of unsaturated sand and clay beneath the dump. They also recommended more extensive long- term monitoring of the site.
If accepted, Thompson said that the monitoring recommendation may change how similar dump sites are planned and approved in other states.
Thompson said that when Babbitt's staff asked him directly what he would do if the decision about Ward Valley were his choice to make, he replied that he believes the site is a safe place to store low-level nuclear wastes. Whether it is an appropriate choice means balancing other factors -- such as the appropriateness of leaving those wastes in urban areas.
On the other hand, Thompson said, issues emphasized in the study -- the fragility of the desert, the potential for disruption of habitats for endangered animals like the desert tortoise -- make Ward Valley an inappropriate choice for many other purposes. "I wouldn't put a casino there, for example," he said.
In addition to its recommendations, Thompson said one of the committee's main achievements was to let the public in on the process of investigating the scientific questions about safety. Six days of hearings were held in Needles, with scientists and engineers testifying about the geology, hydrology and ecology of the area, and about what is known about transport of radioactivity. At open-mike sessions at each hearing, the committee also heard from representatives of the Fort Mojave Indian tribe, which lives in a nearby reservation along the Colorado River, and from frightened local residents. "Don't kill my baby," one woman pleaded, holding her child up for the scientists to see.
An older couple told the committee they would simply have to give up their home and move away if the dump was placed nearby. They attended every session, and often came up to chat with committee members. In the end, they thanked the scientists for considering the safety issues.
"I don't know that their fears were much alleviated, but I think they were reassured that someone really is considering these questions," Thompson said. "We have to somehow restore confidence in government and in some institutions."
National Academy under fire
Even before the Ward Valley report was issued, one of the nation's most highly respected institutions was under fire for allegedly undermining that confidence. Editorials in April in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times charged that the credibility of the report and of the National Academy of Sciences' entire review process might be at stake because of questions about bias and secrecy.
The editorials referred to letters sent to NAS by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), and three New York State legislators, as well as by seven scientists who are members of the academy. Each letter charged that various NAS panels assessing nuclear wastes are stacked toward industry and that the panels conduct part of their work in secret.
According to William Colglazier, executive officer of the National Research Council, the operating organization of the NAS, the seven academy members later withdrew their objections once they learned about the council's multi-level procedures for disclosing conflict and for critiquing each committee's report with a second overview panel, to weed out errors and bias. One of the scientists told NAS administrators and Science magazine that the letter had been drafted for them by a member of a public-interest group, Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Colglazier and NAS president Bruce Alberts met in early May with the editorial boards of the two newspapers as well. In subsequent editorials, the papers have dropped charges of bias and concentrated on the substance of the Ward Valley report.
Colglazier said that the letters followed a year of pressure by opposition groups. "Committee and staff members were harassed," he said. "They had to do their work under a microscope."
At first, NAS officials assumed the opposition would have little impact. Controversial topics are not unusual for the NAS, which was chartered by Congress in 1863 as an independent non-profit institution to provide scientific advice to government. Scientists are expected to report solely on the science of an issue, so policymakers like Babbitt can make informed political decisions.
The National Research Council conducts about 200 studies each year with the help of the nation's top experts. In most cases the quality of the expertise and the council's careful procedures have maintained its reputation for what Colglazier calls "our only coin . . . the objectivity of the advice."
In the case of Ward Valley, Colglazier said, "We underestimated the sophistication of the [political] opposition. We had naively assumed that the academy would be respected when it was attacked so viciously."
A clash of cultures
Looking back on the controversy, Thompson said he could see where scientists' definitions differ from those of politicians on questions of objectivity and the appropriate expertise for a review panel.
The 17 scientists studying Ward Valley included experts on geophysics, geochemistry, hydrology, soil science, ecology, botany and environmental engineering. They had done previous research on the ecology of the desert tortoise and desert plant populations, soil physics, the transport of contaminants in unsaturated zones, and the movement of radionuclides in underground water.
"If you have gone through the work to conduct an experiment and analyze the data, and come to a conclusion, then you have experience, knowledge -- some would say bias," Thompson said. "Scientists consider it the best use of science to do one's work, submit it for scientific publication, put it out there and have it challenged by other scientists. It's amazing to us to be attacked [for doing that], to have the attackers say this person is biased because he or she has published on the subject."
As an example of those attacks, Thompson said that hydrologist Bridge Scanlon of the University of Texas-Austin was sharply criticized because she had recently presented a scientific paper on the migration of water in desert zones to a scientific meeting.
'Opponents also attacked members of the committee for belonging to institutions that used low-level nuclear waste (as most universities do) or for having conducted studies for nuclear power companies or the Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear weapons facilities.
"One would be hard pressed to find an expert on radioactive waste, or on hydrology and geology issues surrounding radionuclides, who has not lent their scientific expertise to industry or to government agencies," Thompson said.
The committee also was criticized for writing its report in secret. Colglazier explained that this is standard procedure at the NRC because only the finished draft of a report, which has been re-drafted to answer the objections raised in peer review, is an official NRC document.
Thompson said the issue also reflects the clash in scientific and political cultures. It would have been hard to do the hard thinking needed to complete the report in the fishbowl atmosphere of an open hearing, he said. "There is a difference between bias and scientific interpretation. When you weigh all the factors and make an interpretation, your scientific colleagues tend to challenge you, to make you prove it. [In an open meeting], advocates can use these challenges to short-circuit the process."
Colglazier was concerned about the toll that work in such a fishbowl takes on scientific panels. National Research Council panel members serve without pay, he said. They are scrutinized for conflicts of interest in a disclosure process that is open to all other panel members, and sometimes leads to a scientist being bumped from a committee. But if the public demanded the same level of disclosure that they demand from political appointees, or if panels were routinely subjected to political attack, he said the personal toll might discourage scientists from participating.
"This process is unique to the United States," Colglazier said. "Other nations do not have this tradition of scientists and engineers from outside the government giving advice -- and of the government listening to that advice. It helps [policymakers] to make more rational decisions in the long run. It would be a shame if it were lost."
Having an impact
Thompson said the major factor that most impressed him about the Ward Valley Committee was the conscientiousness of its members. "They wanted to consider all the issues in their total scientific depth," he said. "They also wanted to set a pattern for how a site assessment [for a nuclear waste site] could be done in the future."
So far, licensing procedures for proposed low-level waste sites have required a year of monitoring to determine whether water seeping through the site could carry contamination into groundwater. The committee recommended that this monitoring be expanded to include more test wells beneath and around the site. They said the monitoring should continue for more than 100 years, far beyond the 30-year use of the site and the life of most of its radioactive materials, and should be reviewed by an independent panel of scientists.
Two dissenting members of the committee said that no engineering or construction should start until an extra test is made to make sure that contaminants could not have traveled deep into the soil in recent years. The majority of the committee agreed that this test should be made, but said work could begin even though it would have to be halted if this extra test, for the presence of tritium, turned out positive.
Perhaps primed by the controversy over the makeup of the committee, newspaper reports and editorials emphasized the dissenting opinions in the report. Thompson was bemused to note that most reports missed the committee's recommendations for more stringent requirements for waste sites.
"I was amazed to hear that the governor's office was crowing about the report, as if [transfer of the land to the state] was in the bag," he said. "If they read our report, they have a lot more work to do."
The final decision about transferring the land is expected shortly from the secretary of the interior.
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