For 23 years, geoscience professor Gene Smith has probed a ridge of volcanic rock 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Would this be a good place for the federal government to dispose of our nuclear waste?
He doesn't think so. The state of Nevada, and a lot of people in it, don't think so. And now, neither does the Obama Administration, which recently cut the U.S. Department of Energy's budget for getting approval of the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository to nearly zero.
Regardless of the final outcome, it's been time well spent for Smith. The volcanologist has learned quite a bit at Yucca Mountain: How and at what depth the magma was produced, how thick it was, how its chemistry varied, and what all those data can tell us about the vast mystery that lies under the Earth's crust.
"There's been a lot of basic science that's come out of this," Smith said. "Students have benefitted from the work. It helps in experience, it helps them get published, it helps them get jobs -- all the things a faculty member is supposed to do." He chuckles.
The Detroit native has spent 29 years at UNLV, helping develop a geoscience graduate program from nothing, watching a staff of six professors swell to 24, and publishing more than 75 journal articles.
In 2006, he won the $10,000 Harry Reid Research Award, given annually to faculty whose research has responded to the needs of the community and state. The award comes from Annual Fund donations, gifts that are not restricted to specific uses. Smith used the money in his Yucca Mountain research, which he believes helps the state and its people by evaluating the safety of the site, or the lack of it.
In addition to the Yucca Mountain work, Smith is studying a series of volcanic areas, including the Lake Mead area, the Garlock Fault in California, and the St. George-Cedar City area of southwestern Utah. "They're building in areas where volcanoes erupted 2,000 years ago," Smith says. "We're trying to determine what the risk is to the population in a very fast-growing part of Utah." Another project he's worked on with implications for the world, never mind Nevada: "the study of Quaternary basaltic volcanism to the north of the Yellowstone Caldera." Wake up. Yellowstone National Park, as scientists have realized in recent years, sits atop a 35-by-45-mile reservoir of magma, referred to as a caldera. It's what heats the park's magnificent geysers and thermal pools.
At assorted points throughout history, roughly every 600,000 years, the caldera has erupted, although "exploded" might be a better term. If the entire caldera blew today, the results would be unimaginable: a potential mass extinction on the order of the Chicxulub meteor impact that is believed to have killed the dinosaurs. The caldera's last mass eruption, by the way, was about 640,000 years ago.
In short, what Smith's been doing, in collaboration with UNLV geology professor Terry Spell, is examining rock strata near Yellowstone for chemical signs that might foretell volcanic activity "in the near future" -- which, to anyone studying rocks, can mean as much as 10,000 years. He's found some: increased levels of a certain isotope in the metal neodymium found in rock strata just below eruption layers. He's finding the isotope in younger lava rock, too.
Of course, this doesn't mean Yellowstone will blow next week, or even next century. Geoscientists tend to view the passage of time in terms of eons, not years. They talk about 2,000 years ago, he says, as if it was this morning.
Which is one reason why Smith accepts the seemingly endless process of attending the Yucca Mountain Repository with the calm of someone who knows, perhaps better than the rest of us, that the important things take time.
"It'd be nice if it was dead," he says, "but it's simply not going to happen that easily."