As the book title Too Dumb to Meter: Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends, and Duds on the U.S. Road to Atomic Energy implies, nuclear power has traveled a rough road. In this POWER exclusive, we present the 20th and 21st chapters, “Out of Sight and Mind” and “Holey Kansas,” the first two chapters of the “Waste Is a Terrible Thing to Mind” section.
In Washington in 2011, this joke was circulating among the followers of nuclear energy policy:
Question: What do you call it when you dig a hole in the desert, dump $15 billion in it, and walk away?
Answer: Yucca Mountain Nevada.
We return to the high, dry western desert where so much of the nation’s atomic folly took place and so much of it was buried. The masters of the early, heady days of the Manhattan Project paid little mind to the nasty stuff left after the processes were refined, the bombs built, and the reactors constructed. They left behind a noxious mess of toxic and radioactive liquids, pumped into thin-walled tanks and largely forgotten. Hardly anyone contemplated what to do about the coming stream of detritus from the anticipated flood of commercial nuclear power plants. Over sixty years, this waste became an insoluble problem, an obstacle to any future development of civilian nuclear generation and a looming financial burden to commercial use of nuclear energy.
Some nuclear engineers like to dismiss the waste controversy as merely a “political” issue, as if that somehow meant it isn’t significant and not worth puzzling over. First, that’s not entirely true. There are plenty of technical and engineering issues that stand in the way of resolving the problem of what to do with what’s left when the atoms have been split or fused, the lights lit up, and the Leaf’s batteries run down. More to the point, the somehow unworthy “political” issue has helped erect a so-far insurmountable hurdle to an atomic future. No political resolution has come into view.
Samuel Walker, the in-house historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, titled his short, pointed history of nuclear waste policy The Road to Yucca Mountain. That is partly fitting, in that the nuclear dead end terminates at a hole in the ground located in a mountain in that old familiar haunt, the government’s Nevada Test Site. But “road” is a bit misleading. The course that ends up in a multi-billion-dollar hole in the ground in the wastelands of Nevada is more like a meandering stream, or a confused cow path, with twists and turns, and no clear indication of its ultimate destination, if there be one.
20. Out of Sight and Mind
“Sanitary engineer” is a title that sounds anachronistic in an age of high-energy physics, artificial intelligence, genomic sequencing, and Twitter. Sometimes, the phrase is a comedic euphemism for a garbage collector. Today, the more common term to describe such men and women is “environmental engineer,” which doesn’t really capture the heart of this honorable discipline.
Sanitary engineers are crucial to our modern world. These are men and women who make sure the water we drink won’t sicken or kill us, that our waste byproducts won’t diminish or damage our lives, that pestilence won’t devastate our cities or overwhelm our populace.
Growing out of the craft of plumbing that dates at least to Roman times, modern sanitary engineering as a formal profession has its roots in 19th Century England. In laws in 1848 and 1858, the British Parliament established the basis for scientific regulation of public health, calling for investigations when a local death rate exceeded 23 per 1,000 population. In an attempt to control smallpox, the Privy Council ordered the first systematic inspection of localities, which looked at public health in 1,143 districts in England in 1864. Two British “Nuisances Removal Acts” in 1855 and 1860 establish ways for localities to appoint committees to deal with waste disposal, crowding, and other conditions that could have an impact on the spread of diseases among the public.
In the U.S., plumbing inspections became a common feature in cities in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. In 1906, Henry Davis, chief plumbing inspector for the city of Washington, D.C., met with 25 of his colleagues from around the country at the historic Willard Hotel in the nation’s capital to form the American Society of Sanitary Engineering for Plumbing and Sanitary Research. Davis told the men, “You are here for the purpose of forming an association of inspectors of plumbing and sanitary engineers, to be the source from which rules and regulations could be developed for the advancement of sanitary science, in the interest of public health.” That organization survives today as the American Society of Sanitary Engineers.
The towering figure in American sanitary engineering was a little-known scientist from Baltimore, Maryland, Abel Wolman. Born in 1892 of immigrant parents from a Polish ghetto, Wolman never abandoned his native city. He graduated from Baltimore City College in 1909, earned a BA from Johns Hopkins University in 1913 in pre-medical studies, and a BS in engineering from Hopkins in 1915, one of the first four students to earn an engineering degree from the famous university. Wolman then began working for the Maryland Department of Health, where he stayed until 1939, when he became a full-time professor and department chairman at the Hopkins Department of Sanitary Engineering, which he had founded in 1937.
Wolman’s claim to lasting fame came in 1919, at the age of twenty-six, when he devised a method for standardizing the use of the deadly chemical chlorine to purify drinking water. He successfully applied the new technology to Baltimore’s water supply, making it a model for the rest of the nation. That began a long career as a consultant to municipalities and institutions around the world on public health and waste handling and disposal.
Wolman’s work on chlorination, still the primary method for water purification around the world, was a revolutionary development in public health. Potable water has transformed the world. In 1997, Life magazine called water chlorination “probably the most significant public health advance of the millennium.”
In 1948, during the public relations glow resulting from the successes of the Manhattan Project, Wolman also became the first prominent scientist to warn of the dangers of the growing accumulation of nuclear waste from the nation’s atomic bomb program. In raising a warning about the potential public health impacts of nuclear waste, Wolman found himself in conflict with the powerful nuclear establishment, including the iconic physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee. While never gaining the public fame or notoriety of scientists such as Oppenheimer or Edward Teller, Wolman undoubtedly had a greater impact on the life of the average American—or the average citizen of the world, for that matter.
The pioneers of the Manhattan Project paid little attention to what was left behind when they stripped U-235 from U-238 or made plutonium from uranium—understandable at the time, although shortsighted in retrospect. They faced and felt great urgency. When they thought about waste at all, they thought it was a simple technical problem they could deal with in time. The atomic energy establishment came up with a revealing term to describe the work of understanding the impacts of radioactivity on humans and the environment. This discipline quickly became known as “health physics.” One observer suggested that the term was concocted as a result of the cult of secrecy during the early days of the bomb program: “‘Radiation protection’ might arouse unwelcome interest; ‘health physics’ conveyed nothing.”
The major source of waste from the Manhattan Project was a wicked liquid brew of chemicals and radioactive isotopes resulting from the plutonium reprocessing operation at the Hanford Engineering Works on the Columbia River in Washington. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 was fueled with plutonium. Operations at Hanford consisted of: reactors that bombarded aluminum-clad uranium-238 fuel pellets with neutrons, creating, among other byproducts, the necessary Pu-239; and the plants that stripped the plutonium from the irradiated reactor fuel.
To get the irradiated fuel pellets from the Hanford reactor to yield its explosive plutonium, workers first moved the hot fuel to a pool of water to cool down and age sufficiently to let radioactive iodine-131 decay to less dangerous levels. Then the irradiated slugs were moved to a reprocessing building, soaked in a chemical bath to remove the aluminum cladding around the fuel, chopped into bits, and dissolved in a bismuth phosphate solution. A centrifuge removed the plutonium, producing a plutonium nitrate paste that Hanford then sent to Los Alamos for use in bombs.
The plutonium extraction took place in large, long concrete industrial buildings known as “canyons.” The most famous, the T plant, where the Hanford technicians removed the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb, was eight hundred feet long, sixty-five feet wide, and eighty feet high. The Hanford workers named it Queen Mary, for its general resemblance to an ocean liner.
What was left after the Hanford technicians removed the plutonium was a thermally and atomically hot, nasty mix of toxic and radioactive chemicals, capable of boiling by itself, highly corrosive, and not reusable. Not knowing how to convert this witches’ brew into something useful or even stable, the plant’s engineering contractors—the chemical company DuPont designed, built, and operated the plant—provided a tank farm for waste storage. They initially built sixty-six underground tanks. The bottoms and sides of the tanks were carbon steel wrapped in reinforced concrete. The tanks were topped with concrete lids. The first tank farm had a capacity of about twenty-five million gallons. Another eighty-three single-shell tanks went into the ground after the war, up until 1964. From 1968 to 1986, Hanford engineers built another twenty-eight tanks. The final generation of Hanford tanks had double shells, with a second steel container wrapped around the first carbon steel and concrete shell.
But even with hundreds of millions of gallons of storage capacity, the Hanford tank farms were far too small to handle all the liquid waste the plant generated, particularly after 1952 when a new, high-volume Redox plutonium extraction process went into service. By early 1953, Hanford was generating some nine million gallons of liquid waste per day. As the Hanford official website delicately explains, “The volume of chemical wastes generated through the plutonium production mission far exceeded the capacity of the tanks. Some of the liquid waste did end up being put into holding facilities and some was poured into open trenches. Some of the wastes that were put into the tanks didn’t stay there, as the heat generated by the waste and the composition of the waste caused an estimated sixty-seven of these tanks to leak some of their contents into the ground. Some of this liquid waste migrated through the ground and has reached the groundwater.”
The men in charge of the mammoth enterprise appeared unconcerned about this approach to waste. Herbert Parker, head of health and safety programs at Hanford, argued in the late 1940s that “present disposal procedures may be continued…with the assurance of safety for a period of perhaps fifty years.” Parker, a British radiologist, believed that his mission would be accomplished if the radioactive and chemical wastes simply remained isolated on the Hanford federal reservation. “What the water does at Hanford,” he explained, “is irrelevant if the toxic matter is retained.” As University of Montana historian Ian Stacy put it in a 2010 article in the journal Environmental History, “Apparently, then, the only way to preserve the regional ecosystem was to destroy the Hanford reservation.”
For decades, officials at Hanford, the Atomic Energy Commission, the Energy Research and Development Administration, and the Department of Energy in Washington insisted that the tanks would not leak. When it was shown that they were leaking, the officials said the structure of the soil and the fact that the tanks were well above the ground water meant the contamination could never move offsite. When it was shown that Hanford was polluting the Columbia River, the officials effectively said, “Well, never mind. We’ll figure out a way to fix it, and get back to you.”
The atomic enterprise’s chief concern about waste produced from its operations was the laudable aim of keeping worker exposures to minimal levels. The weapons engineers were also concerned about economic damage to livestock and, in the case of Hanford, to economically important salmon stocks in the Columbia. In a wonderfully understated comment, a 1997 Department of Energy look-back at nuclear waste management said, “The Manhattan Project officials did understand, at least theoretically, the environmental, health, and safety implications of nuclear technology.”
When the AEC began its operations, taking over from the Army, the agency created a Safety and Industrial Health Advisory Board, composed of outside experts, with a mission of examining the Manhattan Project’s fire, construction, chemical, electrical, and radiation hazard programs. Abel Wolman in the late 1930s had done some consulting work for the Tennessee Valley Authority, under the direction of TVA chairman David Lilienthal. When President Truman named Lilienthal chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1947, it was natural that Wolman, who was also the chairman of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Sanitary Engineering, would be on the AEC advisory board.
Wolman probably was behind the creation of the AEC board. The academy originally asked him to visit Lilienthal to express its concerns about the agency’s management of nuclear waste. As chairman of the relevant NAS committee, Wolman was almost certainly the source of the academy’s interest in the topic. He advised Lilienthal that the AEC needed to foresee worker and public health problems that might “arise in the continued development of nuclear fission studies and production programs.” Lilienthal responded that he thought that the academy’s “worry was unwarranted.” But the AEC chairman created the advisory board and, entirely predictably, named Wolman to serve on the board, which was headed by Sidney Williams, assistant to the president of the National Safety Council.
The indefatigable Wolman brought his full energy to the AEC work. He boldly went into the field, visiting the AEC’s labs and production plants, including Hanford. In 1947, working with another sanitary engineer, his friend Arthur Gorman, Wolman produced a draft report on the AEC facilities for the advisory board. Wolman and Gorman got to the heart of the AEC’s waste problems, noting “in the haste to produce atomic bombs during the war certain risks may have been taken…with the understanding that subsequently more effective control measures would ameliorate those risks.” The limits for exposure to radiation and toxic substances, they said, were set internally, without consulting with “public health officers normally concerned with and responsible for such problems in civilian life.” Wolman and Gorman feared that water supply at Hanford and the Clinton lab in Oak Ridge had been contaminated, and that air pollution was a significant problem. “We cannot recall a single stack in any of the areas of such height or design which would meet modern requirements of industrial or laboratory operations,” they concluded.
The safety advisory board’s final report echoed the analysis of Wolman and Gorman, although in somewhat more diplomatic language. “The Atomic Energy Commission inherited from the Manhattan Project an excellent safety program and record,” said the final 1948 report. But then the board slid in its analytic knife: “There are recent indications that these are deteriorating.”
The board delivered its final report to Lilienthal and the AEC in April 1948. A 1997 Department of Energy look at the history of radioactive waste management, summarizing the Wolman panel, characterized the AEC’s waste management program as “negligent.” Continuation of AEC waste disposal practices, said the Wolman board, presented “the gravest of problems” in the long run. The board concentrated on gaps in the AEC’s understanding: how its liquid wastes would migrate toward groundwater, streams, and rivers; how the AEC production facilities were venting gaseous radioactive and chemical wastes; and further studies of the impact of waste disposal on the surrounding environment.
The advisory board also recommended that the AEC reorganize its activities to increase its attention to waste. Under Manhattan Project protocols, waste disposal was entirely a local matter. The managers of the labs and atomic factories were responsible not only for what they produced but how they disposed of the remaining noxious material. The 1997 report on radioactive waste management noted: “The Hanford health physics capability was set up independent of the Met Lab in Chicago. Los Alamos also established and conducted its own health physics program. High security hampered cooperation and data exchange among the laboratories’ health physicists.” The safety board said this undervalued waste management, producing a concentration on radiation hazards to workers, with not enough attention on release of toxic wastes into the environment.
Understanding the history of local autonomy and authority that characterized the atomic endeavor, the NAS advisory board tiptoed carefully around the issue of management structure. The board recommended a “gradual” approach to centralization, slowly concentrating authority and oversight for environmental safety and health into a headquarters function centered in Washington.
The Wolman board’s report had mixed impact. For the most part, the physicists in charge of the atomic policy rejected the board’s notion that there was something rotten in the AEC’s waste management approach. Wolman quickly crossed policy swords with the legendary Oppenheimer, then at the height of his bureaucratic and public relations powers. At the April 1948 meeting where the board discussed its findings, Oppenheimer dismissed waste disposal as “unimportant.” Historian Samuel Walker said Oppenheimer’s attitude was “a prevalent judgment among physicists and other scientists who held influential posts with the AEC.”
The AEC bureaucracy also rejected the idea of centralizing waste management. A group representing the AEC’s labs met in May 1948 and voted in favor of continuing the policy of leaving authority for waste disposal in the hands of local managers. That view, however, was not unanimous. Walter Zinn, the new head of the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago and the leading light of the agency’s breeder reactor program, disagreed. He told his staff in 1948 that radioactive waste disposal was one of the greatest problems facing the lab and should be on the agenda of the AEC in Washington.
Wolman and the safety board did persuade Lilienthal to take some small steps toward centralizing the commission’s environmental safety and health program. He agreed to what the report proposed as a first step: appointing a sanitary engineer to the AEC’s headquarters staff. Lilienthal told Wolman, “Since you pushed it, you find me the man.”
Wolman had no trouble finding the man. He immediately nominated his close friend and colleague Arthur Gorman for the job. Gorman was running the city water department for Chicago but agreed to take the job at the AEC. Gorman then, in 1949, hired Joseph Lieberman, who had earned his PhD in sanitary engineering under Wolman at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, to assist him. As NRC historian Walker summarizes, “For many years, Gorman and Lieberman were the entire sanitary engineering staff of the AEC, and in that capacity they sought, in the face of both technological and political hurdles, satisfactory ways to deal with growing quantities of radioactive waste.”
21. Holey Kansas
Backbencher Joe Skubitz, a middle-of-the road Republican from the middle of Kansas, largely stuck to his political knitting and didn’t make much noise. Skubitz served the fifth district of Kansas from 1963 to 1978. A member of the minority party during a period of long Democratic hegemony, he never chaired a House committee. He had a dependably Republican voting record, an average score for attendance in the House, and left little mark on the institution or the United States—except when it came to nuclear waste.
Skubitz wouldn’t have been able to make the kind of ruckus and arouse the kind of interest it took to derail the nation’s first serious attempt to deal with nuclear waste had it not been for the hubris and disregard for local citizens that long characterized the U.S. nuclear establishment, in Congress and the Atomic Energy Commission. The course of events that led to the collision between the backbencher and the nation’s atomic energy juggernaut began in 1954. Responding to President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech, Congress passed the second Atomic Energy Act. The key thrust of U.S. nuclear policy shifted perceptibly from bombs and weapons to producing electricity.
The Atomic Energy Commission recognized that development of a robust civilian power industry, however it occurred, would mean increased volumes of radioactive waste. The commission had already come under criticism for its handling of war wastes at Hanford, Oak Ridge, and its other weapons labs and factories. Now, the commission also had to consider wastes from power plants, although it saw this problem as one of degree, not nature.
Despite assurances from the field offices and laboratories that the AEC’s management of high-level nuclear waste was prudent, conservative, and not a threat to anyone anytime soon, doubts stirred in the mid-1950s, intensified in the 1960s, and led to an embarrassing fiasco in Kansas in the 1970s. The affair demonstrated the continuing inability of the AEC and the nation to come to grips with the noxious residue of the friendly atom. The events also demonstrated the increasingly obvious fallibility of the nuclear priesthood.
At the AEC, the prospects of dealing with highly-radioactive used fuel from power plants didn’t represent anything new from a technical standpoint. The commission and its staff assumed that the spent nuclear fuel would be treated as they handled the used fuel from weapons reactors. The fuel would be chopped up, dissolved in chemicals, and the resulting liquid wastes stored in underground tank farms until it could be turned into some form, not yet settled, of solid waste. The waste problem created by civilian plants would be a matter of quantity.
In 1955, Glenn Seaborg said that disposing of the “tremendous quantity” of waste “may well be limiting factor” for the growth of civilian atomic energy. But Seaborg expressed the characteristic optimism of the time. “These problems will be solved, however,” he said, “and a nuclear energy will probably be developed in the future because of the advantages of this form of energy.”
The next year, the National Academy of Sciences panel chaired by Wolman called radioactive waste “an unparalleled problem.” While the NAS report concluded that various disposal technologies might work, much more work would be required “before any of them is at the point of economic operating reality.” A year later, an academy report found that putting highly radioactive wastes in salt formations was the most promising course for disposing of nuclear waste.
The AEC asked Wolman’s NAS committee to recommend the best way to dispose of the volume of high-level waste it had already accumulated at its weapons sites as well as what was expected to pile up at the civilian power plants. In largely hortatory language, the Committee on Waste Disposal advised, “the hazard related to radio-waste is so great that no element of doubt should be allowed to exist regarding safety.” The committee fingered salt deposits as the best way to hide the high-level wastes.
Salt, said the NAS committee, had many advantages. Large salt deposits tend to be dry, and water is the great enemy of nuclear waste disposal, as it provides the path for the radioactive elements to escape into the environment. Cracks and fissures in salt beds tend to take care of themselves; salt is plastic and moves on its own to close up gaps. The largest salt beds in the U.S. are located where there are few earthquakes and little volcanic activity to disturb the stored wastes over thousands of years. They generally are found in level formations, making underground excavation easier.
One area with salt formations was particularly attractive, because it was located in the center of the country, reasonably equidistant from potential reactor sites across the nation. That place was Kansas.
During the 1960s, the AEC decided that the best way to deal with nuclear wastes, which it assumed would all be liquid products from reprocessing plants, was to dry out and solidify the material before it was put into steel containers and buried somewhere. The idea was to reduce the volume of the wastes by up to 90 percent. But daunting problems remained. The solidified waste would remain dangerous far longer than the projected life of the steel cans the AEC was proposing to use to hold it. The agency didn’t know how the solidified, compacted waste in its containers would behave when the containers were placed close together underground. Would the heat remaining in the waste accumulate and damage its surroundings? How would water interact with the waste packages?
Waste researchers at Oak Ridge decided to test out some of these unknowns with simulated wastes in two abandoned salt mines in Kansas in 1960. By 1965, the commission felt the Oak Ridge research in Kansas had “shown strong promise” and the AEC was moving toward the Kansas salt beds as its final solution to the waste problem.
The AEC’s focus on salt deposits in Kansas was not entirely a technical matter. The commission was also engaged in political skirmishing with the NAS and Abel Wolman’s waste committee. At Wolman’s suggestion, in 1964 NAS president Frederick Seitz, a distinguished physicist who had studied under Eugene Wigner and ran the atomic training program at Oak Ridge from 1946 to 1947, appointed an ad hoc group, led by Wolman, to look at the “state of the art of disposal of radioactive wastes.” In mid-1965, the review chided the commission for failing to take a systematic approach to nuclear wastes and dealing with the problem piecemeal and day-to-day.
Seitz sent the ad hoc committee’s comments to Glenn Seaborg, who parroted the atomic party line in response. The AEC was working on the problem, Seaborg said, and was considering “a long-range comprehensive waste management plan.” The subtext of Seaborg’s response was characteristic of the AEC: leave us alone, and we’ll take care of it. Milt Shaw, one of the AEC’s top permanent staff and head of the reactor development division, tried but failed to get the academy’s nuclear waste panel abolished.
The attention from the academy, although out of public sight, pushed the AEC to move faster on waste burial. The agency increased the size and pace of its activities in Kansas. Between 1965 and 1968, the commission ran a series of experiments using spent fuel elements from the reactor testing site in Idaho to see how solid waste and salt would work together. The experiment, known as Project Salt Vault, took place in an abandoned mine in Lyons owned by the Carey Salt Company.
Project Salt Vault, in the view of the researchers at Oak Ridge, was a success. The canisters of radioactive fuel from Idaho were loaded into casks, trucked to Kansas, lowered into steel-lined shafts over a thousand feet underground, and replaced every six months over a nineteen-month period. In early 1970, the AEC researchers reported, “most of the major technical problems pertinent to the disposal of highly radioactive waste in salt have been resolved.” The AEC determined to move forward with a full-scale waste dump in the salt beds near Lyons. The AEC figured it might as well use the abandoned Carey mine, where it had accumulated much data during Project Salt Vault.
Characteristically, the AEC officials involved in the project in Kansas had not taken care to ensure that the local public supported the project. The AEC staff reported to the commission that they had consulted with “principal officials” and those discussions appeared to “indicate support” for the waste site. They were fooling themselves and fooling the commission.
While many locals in Lyons looked on the project with lust for government money and jobs, much of the rest of the state was restive. Nuclear Regulatory Commission historian Samuel Walker summarized, “The prevailing attitude in Kansas as the AEC took preliminary action on the construction of a waste repository in spring 1970 was ambivalence.” One of the state’s leading newspapers, the Topeka State Journal, wrote that the state should consider the plan for Lyons “with more than the proverbial grain of salt.” The state’s popular Democratic governor Robert Docking was conflicted by the project.
Seeking a third term in the predominantly-Republican state, Gov. Docking asked William Hambleton, the state geologist and head of the Kansas Geological Survey, to brief him on the radioactive waste dump. Hambleton warned Docking that the project would be technically complex and politically controversial and that the AEC would attempt to bulldoze the opposition and get a quick authorization from Congress to move ahead with the project.
His assessment was right on target. On June 17, 1970, in Topeka, the AEC’s waste project manager, lawyer John Erlewine, announced the selection of the Carey Salt abandoned mine in Lyons as the site for the nation’s underground radioactive waste dump. According to an account by United Press International, Erlewine’s announcement came “following a meeting with the Kansas Nuclear Energy Council. The area was named the Kansas Nuclear Energy Park.” Erlewine said the AEC would ask Congress for $25 million in fiscal year 1972 for the project.
The next month, Erlewine briefed the Wolman committee at a National Academy of Sciences meeting in Oak Ridge. He repeated what he had said in Kansas. The AEC had settled on Lyons for the repository and would ask Congress for $25 million in 1972 funds. He wanted to be able to tell the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy that the NAS supported the choice of Kansas and the salt mine at Lyons for the project.
Enter Joe Skubitz. While little known outside his home territory centered in Pittsburg, Kansas, Skubitz understood how Washington worked and knew how to gum up the levers of power.
Son of Slovenian immigrants—his father was a coal miner and a small merchant—Skubitz was a bright young man who taught at a Pittsburg’s Mineral High School while earning a degree at Pittsburg State. In 1939, the 33-year-old Skubitz moved to Washington to work for Kansas Republican Senator Clyde Reed. While working as a Senate staffer, Skubitz, like many other congressional aides over the years, earned a law degree at night at George Washington University. He then went to work as a staffer for Republican Senator Andrew Schoeppel, who was skeptical of the AEC’s 1960 experiments in Kansas salt beds.
Schoeppel died in 1962 and Skubitz decided to run for Congress as a long-shot candidate. Skubitz demonstrated his political chops in the 1962 election cycle. He first defeated Republican Walter McVey, the incumbent in the third Kansas congressional district, for the GOP nomination in the fifth district. Redistricting following the 1960 census put McVey and another, more popular and senior Republican incumbent, in the same district so McVey sought the GOP nomination in the fifth district. Skubitz knocked off McVey by fewer than 200 votes out of 30,000 cast in the August 1962 primary. Skubitz then defeated the three-term incumbent Democrat James Floyd Breeding in the general election. He was never seriously challenged again and retired at the end of 1978.
A savvy political pro, Skubitz was also a conventional Republican in his skepticism about the federal government and preference for state solutions to public policy problems. He took a position on the House Interior Committee, where he largely defended business interests and state authority while promoting national parks.
In the fall of 1972, for example, Skubitz clashed with conservationists and the Nixon administration’s Interior Department leadership during a conference celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of Yellowstone National Park. A study commissioned by the National Park Service and written by the Washington environmental group Conservation International called for major restrictions on use of the national parks in order to preserve their natural heritage. Nixon’s Interior secretary Rogers C.B. Morton, a former Maryland Republican congressman, supported curbing car traffic in the parks and moving commercial facilities outside the park boundaries.
Skubitz, joined by other Republican congressmen, denounced the report at the Jackson Hole, Wyoming, birthday celebration where the report was unveiled. “Parks are for people,” Skubitz said. “All the people. They must never become totally commercialized. Neither should they be locked up under the guise that they can only be preserved by so doing.”
Skubitz’s skepticism toward the federal government came to the fore in his reaction to the plans to dump the nation’s nuclear waste in the Lyons salt mine—despite the fact that the abandoned mine was more than one hundred miles from his home district. When he heard about the Topeka announcement by the AEC’s Erlewine, Skubitz wrote Gov. Docking about his doubts and fears. “We are being asked to assume unknown risks to make Kansas a nuclear dumping ground for all the rest of the nation,” Skubitz told Docking. His strategy was clear. He wanted to line up a wall of bipartisan opposition from Kansas to persuade Congress to slow down the rush to bury waste in Lyons.
The AEC unintentionally helped Skubitz make his case by producing a wholly inadequate environmental impact statement for the project in early 1971. The National Environmental Policy Act went into effect in 1970, requiring environmental analysis for “major federal actions.” The AEC and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy consistently attempted to narrow the application of the law to AEC activities, which the commission argued were largely exempt from the reach of NEPA. The AEC staff viewed environmental impact statements largely as a nuisance and a bureaucratic requirement that could be brushed aside.
The AEC’s impact statement for Lyons predictably found “no significant impact” in the construction or operation of the Lyons waste dump. Kansas state geologist Hambleton dismissed the EIS as “general, meaningless, and a public relations effort.” Docking denounced it for avoiding “major problems” including transportation, geology, and monitoring.
Skubitz joined the chorus, sending long, detailed letters to Docking, AEC chairman Seaborg, and the Kansas legislature outlining his many objections to the project and to the process that the AEC was using to win approval of the Lyons waste dump. The local chapter of the Sierra Club released Skubitz’s letter to Docking to the press, along with Hambleton’s objections.
Based on its environmental analysis, the AEC asked the congressional joint committee for an immediate $3.5 million to begin site work at Lyons in fiscal 1972, along with a multi-year authorization of $27.5 million. The committee began two days of hearings on the AEC request on March 16, 1971, where Skubitz, not a member of the committee, carpet-bombed the AEC request with detailed objections. In some forty pages of testimony, the Kansas Republican directly confronted the AEC’s attitude toward its skeptics, and specifically Chairman Seaborg. “I hesitate to differ with an eminent Nobel Prize winner,” Skubitz said, “but I must in good conscience point out that it is this attitude of ‘leave it to us; we’re great scientists’ that most affronts a layman. The AEC acts as if your concern and mine should be limited to acknowledging their superior intellect and following their dicta.”
The objections of Skubitz, coupled with those of Docking and other prominent Kansas politicians, and a desire by Kansas Republican Senators Robert Dole and James Pearson to craft a compromise, slowed down the AEC’s express train to Lyons. The JCAE agreed with a plan worked out by Skubitz and Dole to establish an “advisory committee” including Kansas officials to oversee the work, and that the AEC could only lease, not own, the site.
As Congress was enacting this compromise, the AEC waste express derailed. In May 1971, the president of the American Salt Corp. of Kansas City, Missouri, one of the operators in the Lyons salt bed, wrote to Oak Ridge that its plans for the waste dump failed to account for many oil and gas wells that had been drilled in the region over the years. The residue of the drilling could provide a path for corrosive water to infiltrate the waste site. The salt company official, Otto Rueschoff, noted that drilling by his company in April accidentally released “several hundred gallons of brine and muck.” In July, he told the Kansas Geological Survey, the state government body that Hambleton ran, that in 1965 the company had pumped 175,000 gallons into an injection well at Lyons as part of its mining process. The company was using a technology from the oil and gas industry known as hydraulic fracturing to increase production from the solution mining operation. The workers forced the water down a borehole under great pressure designed to break apart the salt and make it dissolve easier. Instead, the water simply vanished and the company experts were never able to determine where it went.
Pondering American Salt’s revelations, Hambleton commented that “the Lyons site is a bit like a piece of Swiss cheese, and the possibility for entrance and circulation of fluids is great.” Lyons was effectively killed, or, as Skubitz announced in September 1971, “dead as a dodo.” While the AEC refused to admit that the dump had turned into a corpse, by early 1972 the commission announced that it would shift its waste focus to above-ground storage.
Joe Skubitz’s 15 minutes of fame were over. He returned to his comfortable role as a reliable Republican backbencher, where he served for another six years.
The damage to the AEC was significant. Samuel Walker wrote, “The AEC paid a heavy price for its errors. The Lyons debacle received national attention that diminished confidence in the agency and made its search for a solution to the waste problem immeasurably more difficult.”
M. King Hubbert, a prominent geologist and supporter of nuclear power who served on the academy’s waste panel for many years and chaired it for a period, later told journalist Luther J. Carter, “There has never been an agency any more ruthless than the AEC. They were a law unto themselves. They had an entirely collusive Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, and there were simply no constraints.” But they hadn’t reckoned on Joe Skubitz.
—Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER. Too Dumb to Meter is available from the POWER Bookstore or Amazon.com and is serialized by permission.