The Future Lasts a Long Time

by Kieran Healy on August 10, 2005

On the way in to work I was listening to a story about the latest round of “proposed radiation standards”: for the proposed high-level radioactive waste dump at “Yucca Mountain, Nevada.”: Because spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste lasts a terrifically long time, and because the project is so controversial, the EPA has had to come up with a standard for storing the stuff. Yesterday they announced one designed to protect public health for a million years, or, in the words of an EPA administrator “the next 25,000 generations of Americans.”

I’m not an expert on any of this, but it seems that the inescapable fact about this sort of policy document is that the premise is wholly absurd. The sociologist Lee Clarke “has argued”: that plans of this sort, designed to cope with huge disasters or accidents, are fundamentally rhetorical “fantasy documents” that have no prospect of working but which are produced as ritual symbols of social order and control. It’s bad enough when the disasters in question are things like a large-scale terrorist attack or a big oil spill. But a million years is about two hundred times longer than the whole of recorded human history, and the idea that we can design something built to work over that time-span is just ridiculous. Even the short-range standard proposed by the EPA covers a period of ten thousand years. At the same time, both the political fight and the nuclear waste are real, so you have to do something. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” to coin a phrase.



Kramer 08.10.05 at 11:19 am

Technically the 10,000 year standard is difficult and the 1,000,000 year absurd. Essentially what the later requires is that we have a relatively accurate predictive knowledge of the climate system over that time (it’s of central importance that the area not become, say, a swamp).

There’s no way we can come close to this knowledge.


Urinated State of America 08.10.05 at 11:30 am

“I’m not an expert on any of this,”

You certainly aren’t. If you think that the emergency vehicles arriving in less than at the recent Air France crash Just Happened Without Any Planning, then you’re kidding yourself, as is Lee Clarke.

What such planning documents can do, as well as identify response strategies, is also identify critical vulnerabilities in your facility and procedures.

Frex, there hasn’t been a Bhopal or even a Flixborough-level disaster in the Chemical Industry for the last decade-and-a-half; when you consider the volume of flammable or profoundly nasty stuff made and transported by that industry, that might strike you as surprising. But it’s ‘cos the engineering practices improve based on past experience. Frex, the lessons out of Bhopal were to reduce inventory of reactive intermediates stored at one location, and to reduce the volumes stored in a particular vessel.

Want an example? Phosgene is used to produce polycarbonate plastics (like are used in CDs). Phosgene is nasty stuff. But you’ll find minimal inventories of phosgene at polycarbonate producers, ‘cos PPG Industries developed small-scale phosgene plants that are about the size of a large room; so no need to store phosgene.

Similarly, you have procedures with hot work in areas processing flammables, etc.


mpowell 08.10.05 at 11:38 am

These are surely fantasy documents. I think there is a better solution and that is just to make sure the waste is still easily retrievable 100-200 years from now. It may seem unfair to simply push this problem on a future generation, but at a reasonable rate of technological advancement this problem will quickly become much more manageable. Given the cushier lifestyle people will probably have in the future, I have no problem asking this of them.


soubzriquet 08.10.05 at 11:45 am

usoa: You missed his point. Are you really claiming that your (plausible) claimed improvement in chemical industry short term practices can actually be extrapolated to mean `we know what we are doing with nuclear waste over a 10,000 year period’? Let alone a million? Not to mention that a lot of what we’ve learned about storing large amounts of dangerous chemicals boils down to: don’t do that. We don’t really have that option in the nuclear waste case…

Your emergency vehicle example is off-target, as well. Emergency protocols have improved because we’ve had a lot of experience with, say, airplane accidents. There is some predictibility. Fundamentally, we don’t know what we are doing with nuclear waste. This means that while we may be able to design fairly good disaster response plans (because disasters, we know something about) around failures of our storage plans, we probably can’t really design good storage plans. Bear in mind how much repitition and new data aids this sort of data, combined with the fact that nobody has ever done such a thing before.


Kieran Healy 08.10.05 at 11:46 am

“I’m not an expert on any of this,”

You certainly aren’t. If you think that the emergency vehicles arriving in less than at the recent Air France crash Just Happened Without Any Planning, then you’re kidding yourself, as is Lee Clarke.

I used to work at an oil refinery, and I’m well aware that there are plenty of planning and safety measures you can take to reduce the risk of accident and raise your chances of responding to some disasters. The point, though, is that there are contingencies you can realistically plan and train for (e.g., an airplane crash at an airport, an accident at an oil refinery) and contingencies you can’t really plan for. Are you suggesting that very large-scale catastrophes are susceptible to rational planning in the same way that a jetliner crash is?


abb1 08.10.05 at 11:53 am

The Onion: Bush Vows To Eliminate U.S.
Dependence On Oil By 4920
. The proclamation comes on the heels of Bush’s plans to pay off the national debt by the early 6300s, and win the war on terror by 7450.


Donald Johnson 08.10.05 at 11:58 am

It’s been awhile since I read it, but pro-nuke people usually like to compare the level of radioactivity in nuclear waste to the ore that it came from, and my vague recollection is that after some thousands of years (I forget how many), the ore is worse. It’s a little misleading sometimes how people talk about this issue–the waste is incredibly radioactive and extremely dangerous when it comes out of the reactor, precisely because at that point there’s a lot of stuff present with short half-lives. After the x-thousand years have passed, I still wouldn’t want this stuff in my drinking water, but maybe it’s not any bigger a threat to future generations than the uranium ore it came from. I don’t know that for sure–I’m not an expert and am only repeating one of the arguments I remember from when I used to follow the debates about nuclear power more closely.


M. Gordon 08.10.05 at 11:58 am

You know, I read this post, and I say to myself, “Well, gee, the people who write these things aren’t, as Kieran implies, complete morons and shills. They must have some basis for these predictions. Their report probably spells out the assumptions, the problems, the knownk unknowns (to quote Rumsfeld). The predictions are probably mostly based on material fatigue studies, which can be extrapolated to some extent, based on our understanding of physics, material science, and chemistry, though there will always be uncertainty. Sure, the government mouthpiece exaggerates the claims, and doesn’t point out the uncertainties, but that’s what PR people do.”

So, then I think about posting something like this, and I say to myself, “Well, I don’t really know how they came to those conclusions; maybe there are other factors that haven’t been considered. Maybe material fatigue studies aren’t reasonable to use for this scenario, I don’t know enough about material fatigue to say. I’m just not enough of an expert to comment on this.”

And, as I’m pressing the back button, I realize, this is why I can never have a huge, popular blog. I am totally unwilling to commit myself on the record to commenting on things about which I have absolutely no clue. Kieran, apparently, has no such qualms (a trait he retains, as I recall, from his days writing opinion pieces for the Daily Prince.) It requires a special type of hubris to be a pundit, I think, one which I lack. Which is not to say that I lack hubris, or even that I don’t enjoy Kieran’s posts, or that I don’t think this one is interesting and thought provoking. But, seriously, I can’t figure out for the life of me where an sociologist gets the balls to comment on materials science. It’s just totally foreign to me.


abb1 08.10.05 at 12:12 pm

M. Gordon, you shouldn’t be afraid to comment on issues you’re not an expert in. It’s OK. Technocratic experts have a lot of training and a lot of data but often lacking the common sense and ethics. This is where your comments might help.


soubzriquet 08.10.05 at 12:13 pm

m. gordon: I have no idea where Kierans conclusions are drawn from, but mine are from the following. Although I have a hard science background, I am not a material scientist either. I have, however, had this or related conversations with people who are, and people in the nuclear industry. The main problems are a) we don’t actually know how to engineer anything over these time periods. Nobody has ever done it. b) historically, many of the measures that were taken with nuclear waste have failed (eg there are a large number of burst containment vessels … yes these were designed as temporary measures but did not last out their design liftime, if I understand correctly (I’ll try and find a cite for that if I have a chance) c) the problem with the comparison with ore deposits is that almost tautologically the ore deposits were for the most part in geologically stable areas etc. until we disturbed them. When looking at storage, we don’t have economically feasable ways to be sure of reproducing this, as I understand it, even if (and this is questionable) our geoscience is up for it.

I am always a bit leery of optimistic claims of `our engineers/experts’ have sorted it out, simply because there are so many historical cases where this was just wrong. Every failure does improve our knowledge, yes, but that has no predictive power over the mistakes we don’t know we’ve made yet.


Kieran Healy 08.10.05 at 12:30 pm

Kieran, apparently, has no such qualms (a trait he retains, as I recall, from his days writing opinion pieces for the Daily Prince.)

Woohoo! The half-life of hate-mail from my stint as a columnist at the _Daily Princetonian_ seems to rival that of the nuclear waste earmarked for Yucca Mountain.


carsick 08.10.05 at 1:58 pm

When I heard about the report on the radio this morning my first reaction was similar but as I pondered it I assumed they were focusing on the Yucca option over other options and then trying to test it against the “known unknowns” as stated above.
Ultimately that’s a good thing to me. But of course the fall back position still available with Yucca is that if too many “unknown unknowns” start to crop up in the future, the technology will hopefully be there to address the situation in some new way.
Better in Yucca than spread around the country in deposits of varying quality and security in my book.


jet 08.10.05 at 2:03 pm

Between vitrification and the half-life of the nasty stuff, we really only need 300 year containment. After 300 years we’ll be wanting to dig that stuff up and reuse it. The part about controlling radiation levels makes sense of course, but the containment facility’s life span is just a joke. NUCLEAR NOW!


Jim Harrison 08.10.05 at 2:11 pm

If we can count on the survival of civilization, storing nuclear wastes for 10,000 or 1,000,000 years is not much of an issue because if a storage system develops a problem, people can just go in and fix it. What made the safety assessments of Yucca Mountain so unrealistic was the requirement that the site take care of itself for 10,0000 years. That’s what nobody knows how to do.

There are genuine problems with nuclear power, but most of the folks I’ve talked to who actually know something about the issues are more skeptical about the economic viability of new plants than the difficulty of taking care of nuclear wastes. Indeed, since the sheer volume of wastes is rather small by industrial standards, it’s rather hard to believe that solutions aren’t available if the politics can be taken care of.


soubzriquet 08.10.05 at 2:13 pm

Lest I give an incorrect impression: I’m all for analysing nuclear options as part of an effort to inject sanity into energy policy and use (which must include reduction, so-called alternative sources, etc. as well. Anything else is either obtuse or dishonest, at this point.) Where it makes technical sense, implement. I just find some of the claims about our ability to design long-term containment laughable. And some of these reactor products are nasty enough that playing politics about it is going to eventually cause a disaster. I’m confident a decent solution on shorter term (allowing for recovery, etc. if/when needed) is possible. It will probably be a bit more expensive than we would like, but the only responsible course of action is to bite that bullet. Many people on both sides of this debate have been acting like children for far too long now.


jet 08.10.05 at 2:22 pm

Jim Harrison,
Could you expand on what you meant about the economic feasibility of nuclear power? I was under the impression that including everything form fuel production to waste management to plant decommissioning, nuclear power costs almost the exact same as coal power. And coal power is dirt cheap, about 3-5 cents/kWh, or about 150 times less per kWh than Californians pay :P


soubzriquet 08.10.05 at 2:29 pm

Jim Harrison: Yes. I may not have been very clear about that, but when I was talking about a 10,000 year solution, I meant one that is supposed to be a one-shot design. A design that says, we can deal with 75-100 years, and then your kids will have to figure out what to do with it is technically feasible, regardless of the other issues it may have. Yucca was more of a drop-it-and-hope approach.

Jet: as an aside, it isn’t really fair to compare total costs of N.P. with the `book value’ of coal power, which doesn’t include externalized costs…..


Daniel 08.10.05 at 2:44 pm

I think Donald is right. Stuff with a half-life measured in thousands of years might as well be spread in a thin layer across the desert because it can’t be high-energy stuff. The nuclear waste that you’ve got to watch out for tends to decay much more quickly.


alex 08.10.05 at 3:35 pm

Jim Harrison:

“Just going in and fixing it” sounds really, really nice and is an enormous crock. At the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the biggest problem is the concrete waste tanks that had random wastes pumped into them. Several of them now house self-sustaining reactions. Fresh water is pumped into them and allowed to boil off in order to cool them. In order to determine when to add water, they use neutron-scattering detectors bolted to the outside because every single sensor they put in the tank dies. We are talking about enviroments where robots don’t work, where lubricants’ carbon bonds are fractured, where there is no suit that would protect a human. If those tanks rupture the emergency procedure is to build a big fence and tell everyone to not drink the water in the Columbia for 10,000 years.

Yucca Mountain is very cute, what with the little robotic train that trundles the waste in. Beats the hell out me how we’re going to fix that sucker if it ever derails inside.

Another Hanford detail: I have looked at the blueprints for the stainless waste canisters designed to hold the glassified waste, some 80,000 lbs each. If the little welded-on lifting eyes stuck to the sides were good for more than a quarter of that load, I’d be amazed.

So to sum up: nuclear waste can indeed be handled safely. I have no confidence that our government contracting process is capable of finding the right people to do it.


Urinated State of America 08.10.05 at 6:32 pm

“Your emergency vehicle example is off-target, as well.”

OK, planning for disasters doesn’t work. Except when it does. Right.

“Are you suggesting that very large-scale catastrophes are susceptible to rational planning in the same way that a jetliner crash is?”

Certainly no rational planning is going to be worse than having a plan, however inadequate. And the relative cost of preparing a plan is minimal compared to the cost of being unprepared.

As a sociologist, you should easily have spotted that Lee Clarke’s argument has a selection bias; big catastrophes are the ones where the accident prevention plans, engineering interlocks or whatever were bypassed or ignored and the accident continguency plans failed; this is certainly true of Chernobyl and Bhopal, which Clarke mentions in his book. Further, Bhopal had no evacuation plan; wheras the similar Carbide plant at Institute in West Virginia did have an evacuation plan, and when a substantial chemical release happened at Institute a year after Bhopal, 135 were injured instead of thousands killed. I note that Clarke doesn’t even mention Institute in his index.

Overall, I think your argument is like arguing that seat belts are pointless because people still die wearing them.


Tom T. 08.10.05 at 6:56 pm

What do the French, who get something like 75% of their electricity from nuclear power, do with all of their nuclear waste?


stuart 08.10.05 at 7:25 pm

The French heavily recycle their waste into new rods, so they produce relatively little waste. Thats the good part of their strategy. The bad part is the waste they do end up with they have no current final plans what to do with, which is not bad 30 years after building 56 nuclear plants.

The had planned to bury it and forget about it, but that was found to be unpopular, so they are talking about ‘stocking’ it underground for later potential reuse. I think 2006 is the current deadline for a stocking spot to be chosen, and I believe the idea is for teams of scientists to be based at the site to conduct further research into reusing, detoxifying, or whatever they can do for the waste.


Mark Anderson 08.10.05 at 9:29 pm

The whole Yucca Mountain design process is absurd. Engineering is an iterative process. No new thing works right the first time. Projects that design otherwise inevitably fail. The radiation standard’s flaws stem directly from this initial error.

The commenters who compare this document to the industrial safety or emergency response process miss the whole iterative nature of these processes; we are able to do them well through years of practice, both drill and reality. We have no experience at doing a long term storage site of this nature, and to suggest that they are comparable cases is unreasonable.

The Yucca site has compromised maintainability to shoot for an impossible ideal of bury and forget. The quest for stable storage involves difficult to reverse processes, exotic materials and speculative design.

A far better approach would be to design the project for secure medium term storage with a review and redesign process. Design the site so that if there is a problem, we can detect and fix it early. The idea of iterative design should be part of the system from day one. It should be relatively easy to access the material, both for monitoring and relocation or repackaging. Design a redundant system, and take action while the redundancy still remains.

One issue would be the lifespan of the organization; government agencies are often de-funded by later generations. Set up the Yucca Mountain endowed trust. Maybe you organize it like a university; they seem to do well at long term survival. The trust would monitor the site, study and handle developing problems, and use this knowledge to update the storage system.

Hanford isn’t a useful example of how hard going in and fixing things would be. Long term storage and safety was not a priority for much of Hanford’s life; the cold war pressures insured that. The waste tank example given by Jim Harrison is a perfect example of the kind of problems the bury it and forget it mentality creates. The reason these tanks are so bad is that there was no attempt to segregate the materials, no realistic design for monitoring, and certainly little planning for long term maintenance. We have a lot to learn from Hanford, but it’s pretty much a laundry list of what not to do. It is also an example of how what seems like a good long term solution to one generation turns out to be a disaster for the next.

I’m not even clear on what is to be gained by trying to shoot for multi-century unattended storage. Yucca Mountain in any incarnation is several orders of magnitude less risky than the other radioactive sites in this country. Until every power plant is decommissioned, every medical source retired, and every nuclear weapon eliminated we’ll have high level waste in far more dangerous locations. What event are we protecting against that will leave Yucca Mountain unattended yet somehow take care of all of other sites? To phrase this another way, what is the risk of leaving Yucca Mountain unattended? What is the risk of leaving Three Mile Island unattended? If civilization ended suddenly, which would kill more people over the next 1000 years, a fully filled but imperfectly designed Yucca Mountain, or Three Mile Island left as it is? (Hint: Which one is on a major watershed in an highly populated and fertile area?)

It doesn’t make any sense to seek perfect long term storage until the other sites are taken care of. It makes better technological and economic sense to design a good storage site that can be retrofitted. When at some future date we take care of the other sites, then we can update the storage site with whatever clever new technologies we have then. For that matter, even the poorly designed long term site we are looking at now is safer than the current system, where scores of plants all over the country are holding spent fuel rods in temporary storage pools.


Maynard Handley 08.10.05 at 10:13 pm

“Kieran, apparently, has no such qualms (a trait he retains, as I recall, from his days writing opinion pieces for the Daily Prince.) It requires a special type of hubris to be a pundit, I think, one which I lack. ”

Kieran is actually quite qualified to post on this because this is not a debate about science, it is a debate about values (or more accurately pseudo-values) and thus about sociology. The current situation is that a certain group of people (who, for various reasons oppose nuclear power) have managed to get their way through pushing the line that we, the people of today, care so much about our ancestors 10,000 or 1,000,000 years from now, that we will do whatever it takes to protect them from nuclear waste — with the all-important side effect that nuclear power goes nowhere. This position is clearly bullshit — if we cared about future generations we’d be doing something about the problems of generations 1, 2 and 3 coming up in the next hundred years, eg using up all the oil, global climate change, deforestation, water reserves, and species extinction. We’d be spending more money on AIDS vaccines and less on anti-retrovirals. And so on.

In twenty years or less, the science won’t have changed a bit, but people will suddenly decide, as the price of electricity triples, “you know what, screw future generations; stick the waste in the desert somewhere with a big fence around it, just give me cheap nuclear power”.


Jim Harrison 08.10.05 at 11:58 pm

As I thought might have been clear from what I wrote, I have no particular brief for or against nuclear power. Hanford was and is a disaster and many of the nuclear plants in the U.S. have been badly run. Looking at other examples, the French and the Taiwanese do a pretty good job with their nuclear system, at least to judge by the reliability and availability stats I’ve seen. Besides technical and political considerations, you’ve got to consider the managerial angles.

I don’t know whether nuclear power is economically viable right now. I’m certainly not the right guy to ask about the issue, but my impression is that the trouble with making projections of the cost of nuclear power is that you have to make a lot of assumptions about the political context. On the other hand, I really, really don’t like coal. Unfortunately, I don’t know how we’re going to meet our power needs without increasing the use of coal for electricity–the numbers just don’t work out right for renewables, helpful though they will be. Modern coal plants are far less polluting than the old horrors that have been grandfathered by the Republicans, but even plants with good scrubbers produce tons of CO2. If you retrofit plants to capture such greenhouse gases, you greatly increase the cost of power from coal and that’s assuming that the technology for CO2 recovery works. It is still on the drawing board. Meanwhile, even besides the global warming problem, coal is ghastly stuff to mine. At least you don’t need zillions of tons of Uranium.

O, and somebody accused me of giving a waste tank example and botching it. I didn’t say word one about waste tanks.


soubzriquet 08.11.05 at 1:35 am

i said: “Your emergency vehicle example is off-target, as well.” (usoa removed the context describing why this is true)

usoa said: “OK, planning for disasters doesn’t work. Except when it does. Right.”

So, are you intentionally being obtuse, or just didn’t read carefully? Clearly my point was that the issue is *not* disaster response (which we can do, with varying degrees of success). The issue is containment design (which whe can’t do on these time scales).

Or are you suggesting that we should implement a containment strategy, assume it will fail catastrophically, but rely on a good disaster response plan?

Either way, your comment seems to claim that I said disaster response doesn’t work. Which is absurd.


dsquared 08.11.05 at 1:49 am

Alex; my dad told the story of a British nuclear plant that has one tank with a little hairline crack in it which is very slowly leaking out something very nasty. The current plan for dealing with the tank is a) a fence, round the tank, which is moved a couple of feet back every year and b) a research budget allocated to some people whose job it is to invent a robot that will be able to carry out the welding job. Ahhhh, clean cheap and safe.


Brett Bellmore 08.11.05 at 4:36 am

Well, you can be awfully messy on this little plot of land, and still rank very well next to fuel sources that require turning whole mountains into flat ground, and arguably anyway, alter the planet’s climate. Just because nuclear manages to concentrate it’s nastiness into relatively small areas doesn’t mean that it’s total nastiness is greater than chemical fuels.


James Wimberley 08.11.05 at 6:28 am

One point not yet made here is that we should use reasonably consistent approaches to the welfare of future generations. A million-year horizon for nuclear waste risks is completely out of line with the implicit time horizon or discount rate being applied by the same government (the USA) for climate change. The continued burning of fossil fuels involves a large risk of disaster in the next fifty years. If we have to choose between planetary climate change and a largish pile of nuclear waste, I’m sure our grandchildren would vote for the latter. I’m not sure we do actually face this choice because of renewables.
And if the horizon is a million years, we should start movng New York, London, Lisbon, Rotterdam, etc to higher ground inland because there’s a fair chance the Canary Island of La Palma will collapse sometime into the sea creating the mother of all tsunamis. See


Donald Johnson 08.11.05 at 7:44 am

I found an online book about nuclear power by Bernard Cohen, a pro-nuclear power physicist which was linked by the Wikipedia article on radioactive waste. Cohen was the physicist whose writings I had remembered–I think he originally published this stuff in the peer-reviewed Reviews of Modern Physics many years ago. He calculates that the toxicity of high level nuclear waste is equal to that of the original uranium ore after 15,000 years. 99 percent of the toxicity is lost after the first 600 years. He also does calculations of what a lethal ingested dose (eaten or drunk, not breathed, since he says contamination by groundwater is far more likely than some accident which turns the waste into fine dust particles that get inhaled) would be at every stage from removal of the reactor to hundreds of thousands of years into the future.

Anyway, based on what he says I find myself somewhat more concerned about the financial health of Social Security in the thousandth millenium than I am about nuclear waste then. There are other hazards to be thinking about if you take these long-term perspectives. In a given million year time span you expect several impacts by asteroids greater than 1 km in diameter, with energies in the 100,000 to 1 million megaton range. You expect several volcanic eruptions the size of Toba 75,000 years ago, or the size of the series that created the topography of Yellowstone National Park. You expect that in the shorter run humans will have done some serious tinkering with the climate with our ongoing carbon dioxide production program, and you’d expect introductions of ingenious new technologies with apocalyptic potential. So if there are human settlements around Yucca Mountain 500,000 years from now, I hope they won’t have any problems with their drinking water, but after 15,000 years Cohen says the Earth will be slightly less radioactive because the original uranium ore has been turned into waste, so for people as a whole the hazard will have been reduced.

I’m not actually pro-nuke–it’s just that discussions of nuclear waste remaining dangerous for a million years seem a tad overstated to me.


Donald Johnson 08.11.05 at 8:00 am

I forgot to mention that if civilization collapses sometime in the next million years, it’ll be harder to have another industrial revolution if we’ve burned up most of the easily accessible coal and oil reserves. They’ll have to make the jump from wood-burning and windmills and muscle power to photovoltaics and more advanced windmills in one great leap. So if we take these million year perspectives, I suppose it’d make sense to use more uranium and less coal to make it easier for them, or alternatively we might want to force them to be skip the smoke-filled industrial revolution stage and go green right from the start by burning all the coal now.


Donald Johnson 08.11.05 at 8:03 am

Dark satanic mills–that’s what I meant to say, rather than smoke-filled industrial revolution stage. Darn–where are the vaguely-remembered literary references when you need them?

Time to go offline now.


jet 08.11.05 at 8:12 am

Tom T.,
One of the reasons that the French nuclear power system works so well is it has less waste to deal with. French plants recycle spent fuel rods which allows them to gain yet more energy from the rods. So for equal amounts of power generated, a US plant will have more uranium to dispose of. The downside of this is that French waste has a weapons grade material in it, so disposing of it outside of a militarily secured facility isn’t reasonable.


Brett Bellmore 08.11.05 at 8:19 am

But the point of recycling it is that you don’t “dispose” of the weapons grade material, you burn it in another reactor. Most of the mass of our “waste” is really just fuel.

No accident, this: The anti-nuke movement has been pursuing a strategy of choking the industry to death in it’s own wastes, by opposing reprocessing to maximize the amount of wastes, while relentlessly opposing every proposal for permanent waste storage.

Pretty darned effective strategy, too.


CKR 08.11.05 at 9:36 am

Thanks, Kieran. It’s important that someone outside the scientific community point out that this emperor has no clothes.

The million-year standard has more to do with protecting Congress and the EPA than it has to do with protecting citizens. I’ve written more here.


Barry 08.11.05 at 10:29 am

The solution which sounded best to me was building large concrete pyramids in a dry area. The ground under the pyramids would have sensors and wast collection pipes for monitoring; the pyramics would be laced with them. The idea would be to fill each pyramid and cap it. The pyramids would be very, very difficult for miscellaneous small groups to break into; but accessible in case of things going seriously wrong.


Urinated State of America 08.11.05 at 11:40 am

“So, are you intentionally being obtuse, or just didn’t read carefully? Clearly my point was that the issue is not disaster response (which we can do, with varying degrees of success). The issue is containment design (which whe can’t do on these time scales).”

I contested your point because you’re not taking into account how one form of disaster affects learning on how to prevent a similar disaster, and also how where the regulatory envelope affects the behaviour and precautions taken by the responsible party. Love Canal happened before RCRA and CERCLA, not after. 30 years ago, you’d have had a hard job finding a hydrogeologist with experience with fate & transport of pollutants; now you’ll find a swathe of them in your local yellow pages. There’s expertise we have now that we didn’t have 30 years ago when the solution to pollution was dilution. To discount using that expertise, as Clarke and Kieran do, is the exhaltation of ignorance.


soubzriquet 08.11.05 at 12:40 pm

“I contested your point because you’re not taking into account how one form of disaster…”

No, you didn’t contest any point I made. You asserted an extension of one type of expertise to another without any sort evidence that it actually works. There is no logical connection between the emergency response teams at Pearson airport, and nuclear waste containment, but you seem to be claiming there is. You can’t cargo-cult this stuff, planning requires understanding.

Although it really isn’t (as stated earlier) my area, having for example recently presented at SIAM geosciences conference I have a reasonable idea of state of the art transport models and approaches, from the people who have designed them. If you talk to these guys, one of the things they will tell you is about all the areas they don’t really understand yet. Sure, there is a lot more expertise than we had 30 years ago. And none of it suggests we know what to do over 10,000 years scales.


Jim Harrison 08.11.05 at 12:53 pm

The requirement that Yucca Mountain be safe for 10,000 or 1,000,000 years is just the latest in a long series of guidelines that make sense as politics but not as policy. Lofty goals sound good, but by distorting priorities, they actually make the world less safe, just as the requirement in the Superfund legislation that polluted sites be remediated 100% did a lot more for law firms than for clean-up efforts. This is not a complaint that environmental regs are too harsh. Indeed, what bothers me is the likelihood that lack of realism in environmental legislation actually tends to let bad actors in government and business off the hook.

As several commenters have noted, while we argue about engineering problems that can’t be solved now but also don’t have to be solved now, far more pressing concerns like global warming and energy conservation get knocked down the list. Unfortunately, demagoguing legislation is often a rational move for politicians of all stripes. So how do we get out of this trap? (Note: this is not a rhetorical question.)


Urinated State of America 08.11.05 at 6:48 pm

““I contested your point because you’re not taking into account how one form of disaster…”

No, you didn’t contest any point I made.”

No, you missed mine. You said:

“Are you really claiming that your (plausible) claimed improvement in chemical industry short term practices can actually be extrapolated to mean `we know what we are doing with nuclear waste over a 10,000 year period’?”

You assumed that I was defending the Yucca mountain document; instead I was attacking Clarke’s book, which asserts that the disaster planning is a “fantasy”. Disaster planning is an application of the engineering method to hypothesize the potential impacts of the disaster, failure modes and how to respond. The fact that ‘cos it is an application of the engineering method, it involves making assumptions to make the problem tractable does not mean it is “fantasy”. Like I said, Clarke’s problem is that inevitably the disasters he discusses are those where the planning was inadequate or failed.


soubzriquet 08.12.05 at 3:04 pm

“You assumed that I was defending the Yucca mountain document; instead I was attacking Clarke’s book”

In that case, you really should have been clear that you were ignoring the main thrust of the original post and consequent comments….

By following this up by appearing to respond to particular comments, while ignoring or misreading the content of those posts can only increase the confusion, no?

I agree at this point that we may well be talking at cross-purposes … but it seems to me at least that in your case this is purposeful.

If you are correct about Clarke’s analysis (and I haven’t read the book, so can’t speak to it) it has no bearing on the fact that there are many `fantasy documents’ around, and the Yucca mountain plan is one of them. This has more to do with politics than engineering, though, as pointed out by others.


Urinated State of America 08.12.05 at 7:16 pm

“In that case, you really should have been clear that you were ignoring the main thrust of the original post and consequent comments….”

Err, you mean when Kieran said this:

“The sociologist Lee Clarke has argued that plans of this sort, designed to cope with huge disasters or accidents, are fundamentally rhetorical “fantasy documents” that have no prospect of working but which are produced as ritual symbols of social order and control.”

“If you are correct about Clarke’s analysis (and I haven’t read the book, so can’t speak to it) it has no bearing on the fact that there are many `fantasy documents’ around,”

Sure, but that is no reason to trash the practice of preparing plans to deal with large-scale hazards or risks; Kieran seemed to be arguing the general from the particular (as I took you to be). We’re only eight months from one natural disaster that, with a minor amount of planning, could have saved many lives with little upfront cost.


soubzriquet 08.12.05 at 9:36 pm

usoa: yes, that is where Kieran mentioned the book. It was clearly referred to in support of the main point, which you seem to have completely missed. If you had built a cogent argument against Clarke’s statments, which you didn’t, and moreso if you could have related this to the point of the original post, which you dont’ seem to have attempted, then this might have been interesting….

As it came out though, most of your statements seem to be either really off topic, or responding to your misreading of comments; so I don’t see the point, honestly. You seem to be reacting strongly to things nobody said here, by erroneously or deliberately misreading them.

Kieran’s was clearly was not an argument from the specific to the general in the sense that you seem to believe. There are good disaster response documents out there, nobody has denied that. There are also politically-driven fantasy documents, it seems (and nobody has refuted that).


Fabian Delecto 08.12.05 at 11:50 pm

It is not that nuclear waste justifies the construction of a mountain which would consolidate and limit it; rather, the mountain–which, once completed, will be perhaps the single greatest piece of art trouve from the 20th century–justifies the existence of nuclear waste, the atomic bomb, and even the entire United States of America.

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