GEOG 160
Mapping Our Changing World

9.12 Outcomes


To date, neither Pennsylvania nor New York has built a LLRW disposal facility. Both states gave up on their unpopular siting programs shortly after Republicans replaced Democrats in the 1994 gubernatorial elections.

The New York process was derailed when angry residents challenged proposed sites after inaccuracies were discovered in the state's GIS data, and because of the state's failure to make the data accessible for citizen review in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act (Monmonier, 1995). A National Research Council Committee was commissioned to analyze the process and results, and ultimately produced a detailed report that clarifies/elucidates what can go wrong in a complex site decision process like this in which GIS can be applied in a rigorous way, yet many aspects of the data are dependent on a subjective and, at times, political process (National Research Council, 1996). That report contains a set of lessons to be learned. The first relates to data, specifically that it is important to recognize limits of data availability and quality and avoid carrying out analysis when data do not meet standards. The other two lessons learned are both about human aspects of decisions that people care deeply about, specifically that public involvement in the process is critical and that careful strategic planning is essential.

Pennsylvania's $37 million siting effort succeeded in disqualifying more than three quarters of the state's land area, but failed to recommend any qualified 500-acre sites. With the volume of its LLRW decreasing, and the Barnwell, South Carolina facility still willing to accept Pennsylvania's waste shipments, the search was suspended "indefinitely" in 1998.

To fulfill its obligations under the LLRW Policy Act, Pennsylvania has initiated a "Community Partnering Plan" that solicits volunteer communities to host a LLRW disposal facility in return for jobs, construction revenues, shares of revenues generated by user fees, property taxes, scholarships, and other benefits. The plan has this to say about the GIS site selection process that preceded it: "The previous approach had been to impose the state's will on a municipality by using a screening process based primarily on technical criteria. In contrast, the Community Partnering Plan is voluntary." (Chem Nuclear Systems, 1996, p. 3)

Meanwhile, a Democrat replaced a Republican as governor of South Carolina in 1998. The new governor warned that the Barnwell facility might not continue to accept out-of-state LLRW. "We don't want to be labeled as the dumping ground for the entire country," his spokesperson said (Associated Press, 1998).

No volunteer municipality has yet come forward in response to Pennsylvania's Community Partnering Plan. If the South Carolina facility does stop accepting Pennsylvania's LLRW shipments, and if no LLRW disposal facility is built within the state's borders, then nuclear power plants, hospitals, laboratories, and other facilities may be forced to store LLRW on site. It will be interesting to see if the GIS approach to site selection is resumed as a last resort, or if the state will continue to up the ante in its attempts to attract volunteers, in the hope that every municipality has its price. If and when a volunteer community does come forward, detailed geographic data will be produced, integrated, and analyzed to make sure that the proposed site is suitable, after all.

The New York and Pennsylvania state governments turned to GIS because it offered what was considered at the time to be an impartial and scientific means to locate a facility that nobody wanted in their backyard. Concerned residents criticized the GIS approach as impersonal and technocratic. There is truth to both points of view. While many aspect of GIS are “objective” from the perspective of being repeatable with predictable results given the same data inputs, specialists in geographic information need to understand that while GIS can be effective in answering certain well-defined questions, it does not ease the problem of resolving conflicts between private and public interests. Plus, many aspects of geographic data are not objective. Choices are made about what data to collect, how frequently, and at what resolution. Additional choices are made about how to process the data, how to weight variables in overlay analysis, and how to represent the results.

Try This!

To find out about LLRW-related activities where you live, use your favorite search engine to search the Web on "Low-Level Radioactive Waste [your state or area of interest]". If GIS is involved in your state's LLRW disposal facility site selection process, your state agency that is concerned with environmental affairs is likely to be involved. Add a comment to this page to share your discovery.