Performance assessments of nuclear waste repositories: A dialogue on their value and limitations

Risk Analysis
By: , and 



Performance Assessment (PA) is the use of mathematical models to simulate the long-term behavior of engineered and geologic barriers in a nuclear waste repository; methods of uncertainty analysis are used to assess effects of parametric and conceptual uncertainties associated with the model system upon the uncertainty in outcomes of the simulation. PA is required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of its certification process for geologic repositories for nuclear waste. This paper is a dialogue to explore the value and limitations of PA. Two “skeptics” acknowledge the utility of PA in organizing the scientific investigations that are necessary for confident siting and licensing of a repository; however, they maintain that the PA process, at least as it is currently implemented, is an essentially unscientific process with shortcomings that may provide results of limited use in evaluating actual effects on public health and safety. Conceptual uncertainties in a PA analysis can be so great that results can be confidently applied only over short time ranges, the antithesis of the purpose behind long-term, geologic disposal. Two “proponents” of PA agree that performance assessment is unscientific, but only in the sense that PA is an engineering analysis that uses existing scientific knowledge to support public policy decisions, rather than an investigation intended to increase fundamental knowledge of nature; PA has different goals and constraints than a typical scientific study. The “proponents” describe an ideal, sixstep process for conducting generalized PA, here called probabilistic systems analysis (PSA); they note that virtually all scientific content of a PA is introduced during the model-building steps of a PSA, they contend that a PA based on simple but scientifically acceptable mathematical models can provide useful and objective input to regulatory decision makers. The value of the results of any PA must lie between these two views and will depend on the level of knowledge of the site, the degree to which models capture actual physical and chemical processes, the time over which extrapolations are made, and the proper evaluation of health risks attending implementation of the repository. The challenge is in evaluating whether the quality of the PA matches the needs of decision makers charged with protecting the health and safety of the public.

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Performance assessments of nuclear waste repositories: A dialogue on their value and limitations
Series title Risk Analysis
DOI 10.1111/j.1539-6924.1999.tb00452.x
Volume 19
Issue 5
Year Published 1999
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Toxic Substances Hydrology Program
Description 26 p.
First page 933
Last page 958
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details