Nuclear waste disposal in West Cumbria

Bruce Yardley - dangerous or laughable?



Stuart 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.

This note is a supplement to the response published by Stuart Haszeldine and myself in reply to the Soapbox article published in April 2013 by Yardley. Stuart has also published supplementary information on his website.

Yardley's approach

Let’s start by looking at Yardley's credentials for supplying advice to the ad hoc committee of Cumbrian MPs in December 2012. Superficially, they are impeccable –  he is currently Professor of Metamorphic Geochemistry at Leeds University, the culmination of a 40-year career in academia. He has also managed to dip his toe recently into more applied forms of geological research.
Yardley claims in an openly circulated email from the end of 2012:

"The 2 technical issues I have expertise on are the likelihood of flow through a repository site and the chemical consequences if it happens."

The problem is that that there is no evidence that he has done any real work on nuclear waste disposal geology - that is, the necessary background reading, research, critical 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 Sweden since. If a possible site is identified it will be possible to predict what is going on and design around it, or walk away knowing that the problem is too difficult, but the bluster is much easier to follow than the very complex technical paper I had to work through!"

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 West Cumbria. This included explaining logarithmic scales, what a differential equation is, and how predictions are made by finite element modelling. But Yardley seems neither to know or understand any of this. Assigning the same value of permeability to the fault zones as to the undamaged sediments means that, in the finite element mesh used for flow prediction, the faults are simply not there. The young people grasped this point, I think.

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).

Nirex's manipulated and essentially dishonest modelling is crucial, because it was used as an argument by Nirex in 2005 to return to West Cumbria.

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 DECC wants to hear regarding West Cumbria - then he becomes an important figure in the debate. No doubt he will shortly be invited to sit on a government committee or two. His behaviour is identical to the handful of scientifically well-qualified climate denialists (e.g. Ian Plimer, Vincent Courtillot and Claude Allègre), established in their own specialities, who step out of their domain of expertise, dabble in the field of climate change, and purport to find flaws in the whole concept of anthropogenic global warming.

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.

  • Clue: The song title is based on a popular saying.

  • Another clue: It was a hit for Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley 50 years ago;

  • Another clue: the title of one of E.M. Forster’s novels completes the phrase for which the song title is the start;

  • Another clue: the original saying is attributed to Alexander Pope, who was castigating critics like Bruce Yardley.

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!.

Back to homepage


Bruce Yardley

log scale

Log scale (click

to enlarge)