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Chapter 13: The Aftermath of the Arkansas Trial

Experimental Results Reach the U.S. Congress

The results of our investigations were definitive. We found that the radioactive zircon crystals extracted from the granite cores had lost essentially none of their radiogenic lead, even at the bottom of the hole where the temperatures were highest. This is exceptionally strong evidence that the presumed 1.5-billion-year age of these granites is drastically in error. Specifically, the data are consistent with a several-thousand-year age of the earth. I realized, however, that these startling implications for a young earth would never pass peer review if they were clearly stated in any report submitted for publication. They would have to be de-emphasized and take second place to the implications for nuclear waste in order for them to ever be published.

[p. 165]

Thus, when the results were written up, I emphasized that new evidence had been found, showing that nuclear wastes encapsulated in synthetic zircons would constitute a very safe mode of containment. Our report was submitted for publication to Science a month or so before the Arkansas trial and, coincidentally, was being reviewed for publication around the time I was testifying in Little Rock. The report did pass peer review and was subsequently published in Science under the title, "Differential Lead Retention in Zircons: Implications for Nuclear Waste Containment" (Gentry et al. 1982a; Appendix). Later some geologists criticized certain aspects of this report. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to respond (Gentry 1984b).

Janet Raloff, the writer who had published an interview about my testimony at the Arkansas creation trial (Raloff 1982a), now publicized the implications of this report for nuclear waste storage in the May 1, 1982, issue of Science News (Raloff 1982b). Just before this date I learned that the U. S. Senate was considering an amendment to a nuclear waste bill. It would require the Department of Energy to investigate nuclear waste storage sites other than the tentatively selected salt-dome repositories in Louisiana and Mississippi. Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi was informed of our recently published report and expressed immediate interest, the extent of which can be judged by his actions when the nuclear waste amendment came before the Senate on April 30, 1982.

On that date he introduced an amendment to the National Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. In doing this Senator Cochran brought our results to the attention of the Senate and had our entire report reproduced along with his comments in the Congressional Record. (I was later informed that his office had also written to the Secretary of the Department of Energy about our report and its implications for alternative storage sites.) Some of Senator Cochran's remarks before the Senate are quoted below:

. . . There is a great deal of controversy and concern, as has already been expressed, about the [nuclear waste storage] sites the Department of Energy is now considering for possible site characterization. There is no hard evidence that any of them will prove suitable for a permanent repository.

Past problems with hasty site selection have caused delays and undermined public confidence. As an example, Mr. President, in 1972, the Atomic Energy Commission had to abandon a salt site in Lyons, Kans., that they were planning to use for a waste repository because water was discovered leaking into the mine, and scientists decided the mine had too many holes in it.

[p. 166]

Salt, despite serious problems associated with it, has been a favorite geologic medium with the Department of Energy up to this point because it has been the most extensively studied medium. Even though many experts believe that granite and other forms of crystalline rock may be very promising media, they are not being aggressively investigated. . . .

The fact is that the time that would be required for characterization of granite falls behind the timetables set by DOE and the schedule that this bill contains as it is now drafted, and it arbitrarily, therefore, eliminates granite from consideration in the selection process.

This decision flies in the face of scientific evidence that granite may be the best possible medium for a site for nuclear waste disposal.

As evidence, Mr. President, I cite an article contained in a recent edition (April 16, 1982) of Science magazine. The article is authored by scientists affiliated with the chemistry division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory addressing the question of using natural rock granite as a site to insure the maximum possible degree that radioactive material can be stored in a way that would not permit escape or create any hazard.

The authors used an innovative ultrasensitive technique for a lead isotope analysis in a natural site of granite at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The results showed, Mr. President, that lead, which is a relatively mobile element compared with nuclear waste, has been highly retained at elevated temperatures under conditions that are similar to those that would apply to the storage of high-level nuclear wastes in deep granite holes.

This study is crucial and it is important because it was based not just on laboratory work but on an analysis in a natural site under adverse environmental conditions.

The Department of Energy should be able to incorporate this kind of finding and this research immediately in its review process. But to follow the dictates of this legislation and the predisposition of the Department to continue studying other kinds of formations would result in their not being able to take advantage of this kind of research.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that a copy of this article I have just referred to be printed in the Record. (Cochran 1982, S4307)

Senator Cochran was not the only senator to show interest in this report. On the day prior to the Senate vote on the amendment, I was contacted by Mr. Peter Rossbach, legislative aide to Senator Jim Sasser of Tennessee, about the implications contained therein. Some Tennesseans had expressed concern about the possibility of hauling nuclear wastes across the state down to the salt repositories in Louisiana and Mississippi. According to Mr. Rossbach, Senator Sasser wanted a better understanding of our results so [p. 167] that he could vote more intelligently on the amendment. Even though Senator Cochran's amendment did not pass, Mr. Rossbach wrote me a letter of appreciation and ended by saying, "If there is anything we can do for you from here, please let me know."

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