Nuclear waste disposal in West Cumbria
Bruce Yardley - dangerous or laughable?
Haszeldine and I have been involved in the UK radwaste debate for 20
years. We know most of the people and companies involved - it's
not really a very large study area - a few dozen active individuals.
Suddenly, out of the blue, a new name entered the debate in
December 2012 - Professor Bruce Yardley of Leeds University. He gave
evidence to a select committee of Cumbrian MPs, a month before the vote
at which Cumbria County Council decided to pull out of the Managing
Radioactive Waste Safely process. Bruce Yardley went on to write a
rather insulting piece for the Soapbox column of Geoscientist, the
house magazine of the Geological Society of London.
by looking at Yardley's credentials for supplying advice to the ad
committee of Cumbrian MPs in December 2012. Superficially, they are
– he is currently
Metamorphic Geochemistry at
2 technical issues I
have expertise on are the likelihood of flow through a repository site
chemical consequences if it happens."
is that that there is no evidence that he has done any real work on
waste disposal geology - that is, the necessary background reading,
fact checking, and so on (the stuff of sound science) -
before he rushed in to criticise others.
Quite the contrary, as I shall show below.
Before I go any further I should state that I never take any criticism personally - I'm really quite thick-skinned; in fact I rather like it when criticism gets personal, because it shows that the antagonist has run out of rational argument (or, in Yardley's case, never had any to start with). But the worrying thing, which is really the whole point of this note, is that lay people (including politicians, of course) just perceive an argument between a few old geology profs. The natural conclusion then, is to say, well, these experts can't agree, so we'd better just sit on the fence. But we scientists know that science isn't like that. It's not democratic, in the sense of having a show of hands to decide an issue. The only thing that matters is the force of logical argument, backed up, of course, by data.
The work has already been done, if you care to look for it
My own work in this area of the last twenty years has amounted to a study of over 3000 papers and documents. Much of his material is from Nirex research, for whom I ran a crucial 3D seismic reflection imaging study in 1994-95 over the Longland Farm potential repository zone. Over the last three years I have carried out the equivalent of at least six months' full-time work, entirely pro bono, and am answerable to nobody except my scientific peers. Stuart Haszeldine has done a similar amount of research, directly relevant to radwaste disposal.
Bruce Yardley seems only to have looked at a couple of my early slideshows, and has evidently not read the detailed submission I made to the West Cumbria MRWS consultation call in 2012 - some 40,000 words, with 94 references and 70 diagrams. Out of these 94 references cited, 66 are nuclear-waste-related and originate from government, including the BGS (21), Nirex and its subcontractors (22), and international (17). The other 20 references are on more general geology, and include 9 self-citations. So there is no evidence here of bias towards a particular view.
In contrast, Yardley claims (in the email referred to above) that:
"After the enquiry, Nirex (whose preliminary model
was much like Haszeldine's) finally produced a really sophisticated analysis of
fracture-controlled flow in the BVG at the site. This type of analysis of
fracture flow has been further developed in
So instead of analysing the data with an open, sceptical mind (as all scientists do when they read a paper through for the first time), Yardley has simply swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the Nirex 97 story: that the Borrowdale Volcanic Group (BVG), the host rock for a repository at Sellafield, was finally predictable and safe; it was just unfortunate that this work was not completed in time for the 1995-96 inquiry. But, not to worry, he had to "work through".. "a very complex technical paper". A whole paper, note!
Had Yardley read my consultation document he would have learned that the BVG around the proposed underground rock laboratory was modelled by Nirex in the Nirex 97 set of documents using a single value of permeability. The faulting in the BVG is so complex that wells only a few hundred metres apart could not be correlated with one another, and the pump flow tests from one to another gave unpredictable results. To reduce all that physical and chemical complexity to one scalar value is tantamount to an admission of failure. Yardley must have grasped that point - if he read it.
Similarly, the normal faults cutting the overlying sediments were assigned the same permeability value as the surrounding undamaged rock. The error bars for each formation are orders of magnitude. Last but not least, many of the permeability values were derived by so-called 'expert elicitation', in other words, an educated guess. Yardley's confidence in the honesty and thoroughness of Nirex's work is both naïve and misplaced.
None of these concepts are intrinsically difficult to
grasp, if one is prepared to take the time. I even managed to put them across
to school students in two invited lectures in
But in his Soapbox piece Yardley quoted me as follows:
"Explaining where he believed the Nirex team went wrong, Smythe writes in his submission2: “My analysis of the modelling used to predict the water flow shows that the effect of the faults cutting the rocks has been ignored”. Ignored?"
He finds incredible my claim that the faults could possibly have been 'ignored' by Nirex. But that is exactly what Nirex did. Despite the evident complexity of the faulting in both the BVG and the sediments, for the purposes of quantitative fluid flow modelling the faults in the overlying sediments were indeed airbrushed away, or "ignored", the word I aptly used in summary in my submission to the Cumbrian MPs group (the quotation reproduced above by Yardley).
and essentially dishonest modelling is crucial, because it was used as an
argument by Nirex in 2005 to return to
In his soapbox article Yardley cites "the relevant paper" (as if only one was relevant!) which happens to be irrelevant to the hydrogeological modelling which underpins the safety case. It is merely a summary of some of the detailed Nirex 97 documents, and deals only with the BVG. Yardley also manages both to mis-spell the name of the lead author and to misquote the title. He also makes several more errors in his careless 500-word piece.
There are dozens of papers (including Nirex reports) on fault prediction, characterisation and modelling, both generally and in the context of West Cumbria, which are far more pertinent than "the relevant" paper he cites. Yardley seems to be unaware even of the Nirex literature.
So why should we worry about him?
The danger of people like Yardley does not lie
in his gratuitous ad hominem insults. It is that he pontificates
upon a subject of which he has barely even skimmed the surface. His job title
gives him some status, which is no doubt justified in his own speciality, but
which he then uses to speak out without having done his homework; and of course
when he pronounces that 'we need to do more research' or 'the risks are
infinitesimally small' - just the kind of thing
Bruce Yardley will be coming up to retirement soon, so I trust that he will then be able to devote the time required to get abreast of the problems inherent in geological disposal of radwaste. Six to nine months of full-time equivalent study by him should suffice - then I shall look forward to some rather more informed contributions from him to the debate on nuclear waste disposal than his off-the-cuff remarks to date.
I end with a quiz. It's a song I recalled when mulling over how Bruce Yardley came from nowhere, as it were, to give evidence to the Cumbrian MPs group in December 2012.
Answer to the quiz - it's a short mp3 sound file.
NB I never liked either the singer or that song, but it's one of these catchy tunes that you can't get out of your head, once heard - be warned!.
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