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Too Hot to Touch


  • 47 b/w illus. 2 tables 23 exercises
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Too Hot to Touch
Cambridge University Press
9781107030114 - Too Hot to Touch - The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste - By William M. Alley and Rosemarie Alley

Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste

When the nuclear energy industry was launched in the 1950s, Robert Oppenheimer dismissed the waste problem as “unimportant.” Over a half-century later, the waste issue is as prominent as reactor safety in the international controversies surrounding nuclear power. It is particularly topical in the US since the 2010 closure of the Yucca Mountain repository project. With no long-term plan in sight, high-level radioactive waste remains scattered across 121 sites in 39 states.

William and Rosemarie Alley provide an engaging and authoritative account of the controversies and possibilities surrounding disposal of nuclear waste in the US, with reference also to the difficulties and progress of other countries around the world. The book tells the full history from the early days after World War II up to the present time, with an insightful perspective drawn from William Alley's expertise in the field, including leading the US Geological Survey study of Yucca Mountain. Stories of key players bring to life the pioneering science, the political wrangling and media drama, and the not-in-my-backyard communities fighting to put the waste somewhere else.

Written in down-to-earth language, this is a fascinating book for public interest groups, affected communities, and anyone interested in finding out more about this issue. The timely and important subject also makes it a valuable resource for policymakers, political staff, environmentalists, and research scientists working in related fields.

“Coming from a concerned environmentalist perspective, this is an outstanding, well-researched book, containing a wealth of information about the global issue of radioactive waste, and presented in a highly readable style.”

– Professor Bill Lee FREng, Co-director, Imperial College Centre for Nuclear Engineering

“This is a fascinating and highly readable book from authors with deep knowledge and a wealth of sharp (and often amusing) insights into the ups and downs of the US radioactive waste management programme. It will appeal especially to geologists, nuclear scientists and technologists with a taste for the lessons of history, particularly those experiencing today the difficulties of implementing solutions to a complex technical problem that is also highly charged, politically and societally.”

– Professor Neil Chapman, MCM Switzerland and University of Sheffield, UK; radioactive waste-management consultant to international industrial, regulatory and governmental organisations.

“An excellent source of information for both the experienced nuclear waste professional and other interested parties. The reader is taken from an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) seminar on radioactive waste in 1949 to a final chapter on nuclear waste and our energy future.

A truly great ride that strikes a balance between the technical aspects and the extremely interesting history of our efforts to deal with the challenges of nuclear waste management.”

– Professor James H. Clarke, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Earth and Environmental Sciences, Vanderbilt University.

William and Rosemarie Alley are a husband and wife team, writing for the general public on Earth Science issues confronting society. As a leading expert in the field of hydrogeology, Dr. William M. Alley has won numerous awards for his work, including the US Geological Survey (USGS) Shoemaker Award for Lifetime Achievement in Communication and the Meritorious Presidential Rank Award. Dr. Alley served as Chief of the Office of Groundwater for the USGS for almost two decades and oversaw the Yucca Mountain project from 2002 to 2010. Rosemarie Alley has a Master's Degree in special education. As a literacy specialist, she has taught young adults with language delays and conducted numerous reading workshops for teachers, administrators, and parents. Currently, Rosemarie is a writer, sculptor, potter, and gardener. The Alleys live in the foothills above San Diego, California.

Too Hot to Touch

The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste

William M. Alley and Rosemarie Alley

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi, Mexico City

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title:

© William M. and Rosemarie Alley 2013

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2013

Printed and bound in the United Kingdom by the MPG Books Group

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data

Alley, William M.
Too hot to touch : the problem of high-level nuclear waste / William M. Alley and Rosemarie Alley.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-107-03011-4 (hardback)
1. Radioactive waste disposal – United States. 2. Radioactive wastes – United States. I. Alley, Rosemarie. II. Title.
TD898.118.A45 2013
363.72′890973 – dc23 2012021832

ISBN 978-1-107-03011-4 Hardback

Additional resources for this publication at

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

This book is dedicated to all the scientists who have devoted their working lives to trying to solve the problem of high-level nuclear waste.


List of units
List of abbreviations
Part I        The problem
1             The awakening
2             Brainstorming
3             The ocean as a dumping ground
4             Radioactivity and atomic energy
5             The Cold War legacy
6             The peaceful atom and its wastes
7             Recycling
8             Dry cask storage
9             Interim storage
10            A can of worms
11            WIPP
Part II       The mountain
12            The search for a geologic repository
13            Nevada wins the lottery
14            The Nevada Test Site
15            Yucca Mountain
16            How long is long?
17            Leaving almost no stone unturned
18            Surprise
19            Shake & bake
20            The project gets into hot water
Part III      No solution in sight
21            A new President, new policies
22            Nuclear waste and our energy future
Appendix: discussion questions


We are grateful to Laura Clark, our editor at Cambridge University Press, for her unflagging interest, insights, and support in helping to bring this book to completion. We also would like to thank Dr. Isaac Winograd, at the US Geological Survey, for his thoughtful and generous review of an early draft of Part II. A special thanks also goes to Dr. Deserai Crow, at the University of Colorado, for her help in framing the discussion questions. Finally, we are indebted to five anonymous reviewers, who provided fresh perspectives on the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript.


We use a combination of American and metric units, and show both where it is important for comprehension. Conversion factors are listed below for some commonly used units.

1 foot (ft) = 0.3048 meters (m)

1 inch (in) = 2.54 centimeters (cm)

1 mile (mi) = 1.609 kilometers (km)

1 square mile = 2.59 square kilometers

1 acre = 0.4047 hectares

1 gallon = 3.785 liters

1 pound = 0.45 kilograms (kg)

1 rem = 0.01 sieverts

1 metric ton = 1000 kilograms = 1.1 tons

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