Executive Summary

The 1986 New York State Low-Level Radioactive Waste (LLRW) Disposal Act set into motion a multiyear effort to identify a site for LLRW disposal in the state.1 As required by this act, the governor of New York appointed a commission charged with siting low-level waste disposal facilities. The Siting Commission embarked on an ambitious effort to identify a site by performing a comprehensive screening of the land area of the state using a set of 60 technical and socioeconomic criteria.

By June 1990 the Siting Commission's work had come under intense public scrutiny and criticism from affected communities in the state. As a result, the 1986 act was amended to require a review of the Siting Commission's work by an independent panel of experts. The National Research Council (NRC) was asked to undertake this review, and a committee was appointed by the chairman of the NRC to review the Siting Commission's siting methodology. The committee's review is provided in this report.

Review of the Siting Process

The Siting Commission adopted a two-phase siting process, described in its Plan for Selecting Sites for Disposal of LLRW, hereafter referred to as the ''Siting Plan.'' The first phase was designed to identify a small number of candidate sites by using existing data and limited reconnaissance studies. The second phase was designed to use on-site investigations to identify one or more sites for certification and licensing.

As charged in its statement of task (Appendix B), the committee addressed its review to the three steps in the first phase of the siting process that were completed by the Siting Commission before its activities were terminated by the governor of New York (Figure 1): (1) the exclusion of lands from consideration; (2) the selection of 10 candidate areas; and (3)

1  

Box 1.1 in Chapter I provides a brief discussion of LLRW in New York State.



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--> Executive Summary The 1986 New York State Low-Level Radioactive Waste (LLRW) Disposal Act set into motion a multiyear effort to identify a site for LLRW disposal in the state.1 As required by this act, the governor of New York appointed a commission charged with siting low-level waste disposal facilities. The Siting Commission embarked on an ambitious effort to identify a site by performing a comprehensive screening of the land area of the state using a set of 60 technical and socioeconomic criteria. By June 1990 the Siting Commission's work had come under intense public scrutiny and criticism from affected communities in the state. As a result, the 1986 act was amended to require a review of the Siting Commission's work by an independent panel of experts. The National Research Council (NRC) was asked to undertake this review, and a committee was appointed by the chairman of the NRC to review the Siting Commission's siting methodology. The committee's review is provided in this report. Review of the Siting Process The Siting Commission adopted a two-phase siting process, described in its Plan for Selecting Sites for Disposal of LLRW, hereafter referred to as the ''Siting Plan.'' The first phase was designed to identify a small number of candidate sites by using existing data and limited reconnaissance studies. The second phase was designed to use on-site investigations to identify one or more sites for certification and licensing. As charged in its statement of task (Appendix B), the committee addressed its review to the three steps in the first phase of the siting process that were completed by the Siting Commission before its activities were terminated by the governor of New York (Figure 1): (1) the exclusion of lands from consideration; (2) the selection of 10 candidate areas; and (3) 1   Box 1.1 in Chapter I provides a brief discussion of LLRW in New York State.

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--> Figure 1 Major steps of the New York State siting process addressed in this report. the selection of 5 potential sites. The committee also was directed to address eight specific questions regarding the technical and scientific adequacy of the siting criteria and site selection process. These questions are discussed in Chapter 8 of this report. The siting process was guided by regulations issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). To address these regulations, the Siting Commission designed a set of 17 exclusionary and 43 preference criteria. Subsets of these criteria were

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--> used at each step of the siting process to screen the land area of the state. Exclusionary criteria were addressed to the nondiscretionary elements of law or regulation. Areas that did not satisfy these criteria were eliminated from consideration. Preference criteria were addressed to the discretionary elements of law or regulation. Subsets of these criteria were used to score and rank areas numerically during various screening steps. The scoring procedure was intended to guide the selection process toward areas and sites with desirable characteristics for an LLRW disposal facility. The Siting Commission used a Geographic Information System (GIS) to apply the criteria and calculate scores. Statewide Exclusionary Screening The first step in the screening process, Statewide Exclusionary Screening (SES), utilized a set of five exclusionary criteria to screen out areas of the state that were precluded by federal or state regulations from hosting an LLRW facility. The criteria applied at this step required no interpretation of regulations and employed data available for the entire state. This screening step excluded approximately 30 percent of the land area of the state. In the committee's judgment, the exclusions in this step were applied appropriately and the criteria used were based on sound regulatory considerations. The Siting Commission had essentially no discretion in this step of the screening process; state law or regulation precluded a disposal facility from all of the excluded areas. Candidate Area Identification The objective of Candidate Area Identification (CAI) was to apply additional sets of exclusionary and preference criteria to the nonexcluded areas of the state in order to select a small number of areas for more detailed screening. Three sets of exclusionary and preference criteria were applied in this screening step: Nine exclusionary criteria were applied to the nonexcluded lands from SES, resulting in the elimination of an additional 9.2 percent of the land area of the state.

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--> The remaining lands were then scored and ranked using a set of 14 preference criteria, and 30 areas that exceeded a minimum cutoff score (4,400 out of a possible 5,000 points) were carried forward. A limited sensitivity analysis was conducted to evaluate the effect of certain weighting factors on scoring. A qualitative screening was performed using a set of 5 exclusionary and 13 preference criteria to select 10 candidate areas. The committee identified problems with the design or application of some of the exclusionary and preference criteria used in CAI screening, as noted in Chapter 5. These criteria address seismic hazards, existing mines, protection of ground water resources, buffers from water resources, best usage of surface waters, and air quality nonattainment. The committee also identified several problems with the CAI screening process itself. The committee observed that the selection of candidate areas depended to a great extent on the sequence of screening steps and the combination of criteria applied at each step, rather than on the likely performance of the area as an LLRW disposal facility. The committee also concluded that the sensitivity analysis performed by the Siting Commission was poorly documented and had a number of technical shortcomings. In performing its own sensitivity analysis, the committee observed that an area must score favorably on a large number of criteria in order to exceed the cutoff score, which is a positive attribute of the screening process. The committee also observed, however, that the results of screening were biased toward rural areas and—a problem of particular concern—regions that lacked data. The committee noted that there is not a strong correlation between a score and the likely performance of an area as an LLRW disposal facility and, therefore, that the Siting Commission's use of cutoff scores in the CAI process was inappropriate. Potential Sites Identification The objective of the Potential Sites Identification (PSI) step of the screening process was to apply additional sets of exclusionary and preference criteria in order to identify five potential sites. PSI screening consisted of four discrete activities:

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--> The candidate areas were screened using 13 exclusionary and 27 preference criteria to identify 96 sites. The 96 sites were then screened using 1 exclusionary and 5 preference criteria. A total of 51 sites were retained. Limited site inspections, performed by Siting Commission staff from inside their vehicles, were used to select 19 sites for further consideration. The 19 sites were rescreened using the full set of exclusionary and preference criteria, and 5 potential sites were identified for further study. During PSI screening, the Siting Commission also considered five parcels of land that had been offered by landowners as possible sites for an LLRW disposal facility, and included one of the parcels on the list of five potential sites. The committee identified problems with either the design or the application of a few of the exclusionary and preference criteria used in the PSI screening step (Chapter 6). These criteria related to geologic complexity, subsurface dissolution, erosion, mineral soil groups, and subsurface drainage. The committee also identified problems with the PSI screening process itself. The first screening activity employed a cutoff score, even though site scores may be only weakly correlated with the likely performance of a site. The second screening activity was not part of the original Siting Plan, and it treated preference criteria as exclusionary conditions. With respect to the third screening activity, the committee found that the plan of the field surveys, the training of the staff performing the surveys, and the factors to be evaluated appear to have been conceptually sound. However, the committee was not provided enough information to assess whether the Siting Commission used the survey data appropriately. In one case the committee reviewed documentation suggesting that a site near the town of Taylor (the Taylor North site) should have been excluded based on survey data. In the fourth screening activity, selection of the five potential sites was based on a poorly documented staff decision. Performance and socioeconomic criteria were combined inappropriately in this screening step as well. The committee also considered the Siting Commission's treatment of offered sites, especially the selection of the Taylor North site as one of the five potential sites. In the committee's judgment, the

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--> decision to include the Taylor North site among the five potential sites was inconsistent with the Siting Commission's policy that an offered site must be at least as good as other sites. The committee believes that the Taylor North site should have been excluded because of the presence of mineral soils in groups 1 through 4 under active agriculture and incompatible structures. Although limited sensitivity analyses were conducted by the Siting Commission during PSI screening, they tested the influence of exclusionary criteria, which the Siting Commission had little freedom to change. In the committee's judgment, the Siting Commission should have performed a detailed sensitivity analysis to test the effects of preference criteria weighting and scaling factors on scoring. The committee performed its own sensitivity analyses and concluded that at least two of the steps had a bias toward rural areas. The analyses also suggested that there may be a weak correlation between a site's score and its suitability for LLRW disposal. Discussion The failure of the New York siting effort can be attributed to both external and internal causes. The primary external cause was the unrealistic schedules imposed on the Siting Commission by the federal and state LLRW management acts. In its strict adherence to schedules, the Siting Commission failed to undertake the kind of careful planning and public outreach required to bring its work to a successful conclusion. The difficulty of the Siting Commission's task, however, was increased by the intensity of public opposition. Indeed, some opponents clearly and vocally stated that they would not accept any site, regardless of the technical justification, and some of them refused to participate in the siting process. One of the internal causes of failure was ambiguity over the goal of the siting process. The Siting Plan noted that the goal of the screening process was "to identify sites that can satisfy the regulatory requirements and to demonstrate that no obviously superior alternatives can be readily identified" (Siting Plan, p. S-4). There may be many sites in New York that would meet the regulatory requirements to be certified and licensed. However, to demonstrate that a site is as suitable as all other readily

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--> identifiable alternative sites in the state, as implied by the language in the Siting Plan, is difficult at best. Many factors are involved in the suitability assessment, and no one site can be expected to be superior in all respects. Part of this ambiguity may be due in part to perceptual differences among involved parties in what constitutes such a site. To the professionally trained members of the Siting Commission, staff, and contractor, an acceptable site could reasonably be perceived as one that meets the technical requirements for licensing and that is located in a community that will accept an LLRW disposal facility. Many of the affected communities, however, appeared to perceive such a site as "best" in some objective sense, and this perception may have been reinforced by the use of a highly technical screening process. The screening process, however, was sufficiently complicated that it would have been very difficult for the Siting Commission to demonstrate that sites superior to the ones chosen did not, in fact, exist. The committee also believes that the technical deficiencies in the screening process contributed significantly to the failure of the siting process and that the sensitivity analyses performed by the Siting Commission were inadequate for identifying these problems. In addition, the committee also notes that the Siting Commission did not provide adequate documentation of some of its important screening decisions. Another internal cause of failure was the lack of a strategic plan and quality assurance program. A good quality assurance program would have helped the Siting Commission identify critical data to validate its decisions and critical aspects of the siting process. It also would have provided a feedback mechanism to allow corrections to the siting program in a timely manner. Finally, part of the failure of the siting process can be attributed to insufficient public participation. The early implementation of the Siting Commission's public participation plan was successful in that the public was informed, given an opportunity for input before decisions were made, and encouraged to comment on draft plans. As might be expected on the basis of other siting efforts, however, relatively few members of the public availed themselves of the opportunity to provide input at this stage of the process, probably because they did not connect this activity to their own communities.

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--> Problems with public participation can be traced to the transition from the exclusion of lands to the selection of potential sites, beginning with CAI screening. The committee finds that the Siting Commission did not provide the leadership necessary to handle this transition well, probably because it lacked a strategic approach to site selection. The Siting Commission failed to recognize the change from an exclusionary to an inclusive role. That is, the Siting Commission did not redefine their role to one of finding a licensable site from one of excluding unlicensable areas. The committee also finds that the Siting Commission made critical siting decisions without appropriate public participation. Because the site selection methodology included many subjective elements, success or failure was very sensitive to the degree of public participation in Siting Commission activities. Lessons to be Learned There are three important lessons to be learned from New York State's siting efforts. The first relates to the use of a "top-down" screening process that entailed a stepwise screening of the entire state to identify ever-smaller parcels of land from which a preferred site could be selected. In the committee's judgment, top-down screening should not be pushed beyond the capabilities of the data and selection criteria to support comprehensive and technically credible decisions. In the New York siting effort, top-down screening probably should not have been pushed much beyond SES, the only step for which statewide data of reasonably good quality were available and in which exclusionary criteria were based on laws and regulations viewed as reasonable by most parties. Attempting to screen out areas based on partial data sets leads to perceptions of unfair treatment, as areas with incomplete descriptive information (often rural regions) are retained for further review, and more thoroughly-described (often urban) areas are excluded, generally to the relief of those living there. Further, the need to create complex data sets to resolve such discrepancies can force the entire siting process toward expensive, time-consuming, and generally unattainable goals. Once data and criteria no longer support screening decisions, other analytical strategies should be considered, such as the collection of additional data or the adoption of a "volunteer" process.

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--> The second lesson to be learned is that public acceptance of the process and the results is key to the success of a siting effort. Research has shown that nuclear waste evokes feelings of anxiety for many members of the public and results in special socioeconomic impacts in affected communities. To be successful, waste disposal siting efforts must be structured to address these effects through a high level of public involvement in facility siting, design, operation, and monitoring. This process must be a cooperative effort and requires the constructive participation of the potentially affected communities. The third lesson to be learned is that strategic planning is essential to completing complex projects under tight deadlines. Such planning must include the identification of key milestones and objectives as well as procedures for dealing with the many unanticipated problems that inevitably arise in any project of this complexity. The strategic planning process could have led the commission to consider the need to change its approach at the turning point from exclusion of lands to selection of sites. Strategic planning could have impelled the Siting Commission to conceptualize the characteristics of an ideal site and also would have forced the Siting Commission to seek out and learn from previous siting efforts.