In a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle Monday (Feb. 16), Clarke characterized the U.S. Department of Energy's Long Term Stewardship program as a hopeful projection of what experts and organizations want to happen in the future, while ignoring worst-case scenarios.
"They seem to think worst cases aren't worth worrying about because they are unlikely," said Clarke. "I think that we are at great vulnerability for massive disasters."
Clarke asserted that while the statistical likelihood for accidents may be low, the interdependence and population density in the United States makes our vulnerability increasingly high. Interdependence facilitated the rapid spread of the SARS virus, while the tragedy of 9-11 bears witness to the vulnerability of a concentrated population. The Department of Energy (DOE), Clarke says, fails to consider potential disasters for the public.
He said the DOE is "redefining reality, twisting words and concepts to support political choices disguised as a technical and scientific ones." Clarke explained that the agency has admitted it is impossible to remove the contaminants from the sites within its purview. It has redefined 'acceptable risk' and now, with its Long Term Stewardship program in place, "it plans to walk away from these sites," he said.
"The DOE's Long Term Stewardship program relies on engineering barriers to keep poisons away from people and institutional rules to keep people away from poisons," Clarke said. Both will inevitably fail, a conclusion that Clarke shares with the highly respected National Research Council.
The DOE's approach to long-term stewardship is driven by hubris and arrogance, says Clarke, at a time when humility and safety are called for. Instead of thinking institutions can be perfect, Clarke thinks we should count on failure.