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Warning Future Generations About Nuclear Waste 616

Posted by kdawson
from the opportunists-we-will-have-always-with-us dept.
Smivs writes "How do we warn people 10,000 years in the future about our nuclear waste dumps? There is a thought-provoking essay in the The Guardian newspaper (UK) by Ulrich Beck concerning this problem. Professor Beck also questions whether green issues are overly influencing politicians and clouding our judgement regarding the dangers of nuclear power."
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Warning Future Generations About Nuclear Waste

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  • We don't (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rah'Dick (976472) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:05AM (#24240769)
    Simple: we don't. Future generations of 10.000 years will probably have the means to detect radioactive sites from the other end of the galaxy. And mabye they'll even have the means to dispose of them quickly and safely. So why warn them? We should be more concerned about how to warn people in the more near future, like 200-500 years...
  • Giger counters? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by objekt (232270) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:10AM (#24240837) Homepage

    We'll provide plans so the ignnorant people of the future can build one of these
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geiger_counter [wikipedia.org]

  • Re:Orr we could (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Hektor_Troy (262592) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:11AM (#24240865)

    Which we could then encase in leak proof containers and dump them in a subduction zone.

    Plenty of those around, so just dump it back in the Earth without having to guard it against earthquakes - in fact we'd like those to happen.

  • by PC and Sony Fanboy (1248258) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:12AM (#24240881) Journal
    Rather than bury them, why not use them to make more energy in a fission reactor?
  • Re:We don't (Score:5, Insightful)

    by silentrob (115677) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:15AM (#24240921)

    Simple: we don't. Future generations of 10.000 years will probably have the means to detect radioactive sites from the other end of the galaxy. And mabye they'll even have the means to dispose of them quickly and safely. So why warn them? We should be more concerned about how to warn people in the more near future, like 200-500 years...

    Try answering the question without assuming that we managed to avoid having to go back to the stone age due to war, plague, famine, etc.

    Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

  • WARN them? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gatkinso (15975) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:15AM (#24240923)

    Hell, they are going to be actively seeking out these uber rich pockets of energy, that we have the gall (or stupidity) to call waste.

  • Re:We don't (Score:5, Insightful)

    by EastCoastSurfer (310758) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:16AM (#24240945)

    You're assuming that progress continues and that we somehow don't blow ourselves up and have to start over.

  • by pitchpipe (708843) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:20AM (#24240981)
    What would you think if you stumbled across a warning from humans that existed 10,000 years ago? Think about it, 10,000 years ...

    Wow, my ancestors are trying to warn me of danger, I must be careful.

    Or more likely ...

    Those silly ancestors, thinking that I wouldn't know anything that they don't.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:22AM (#24241017)

    Thats ... typically american "Don't do anything, it'll fix itself" ... *sigh*

    Notice the use of a period in 10.000? Look at his homepage, he's not American.

    Thats ... typically human "Don't do anything, it'll fix itself" ... *sigh*

    Fixed that for you.

  • by damburger (981828) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:22AM (#24241019)
    The dollar changes, the Joule is forever. Regardless of whether or not the power from a nuclear plant can cover the costs of its construction and decommissioning at the present time is irrelevant. We aren't designing plants to come online in a year, we are designing them to come online in 10-15 years. Thermodynamically, nuclear is worthwhile. When oil starts to really bite that is all that will matter, whether or not we have an energy source that can sustain us. Market forces are subservient to physical forces.
  • by Firethorn (177587) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:22AM (#24241027) Homepage Journal

    Here's the deal. Assuming that nuclear fusion doesn't hit it off anytime soon, or fission just ends up being cheaper in many cases, it'll be far less than 10k years before we're digging the stuff up to run in breeder reactors. After all, current high level 'waste' is still 90-95% uranium.

    I'd say less than 500, actually. Given active storage sites, language/skill drift won't be enough to really matter for the hazards - they'll probably want to re-assay the stuff again anyways. So, we're spending a massive amount of effort on something where it, honestly enough, won't matter. The remaining isotopes after reprocessing have shorter half-lifes, so again, much less hazardous in a shorter time.

    To the point that if they're digging as deep as we're burying it, they already have substantial enviromental concerns anyways. So yes, they should be knowledgable.

  • by d3ac0n (715594) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:24AM (#24241043)

    Uh No.

    It's "Don't waste The People's tax money on something that private industry will find a profitable use for". Like using the nuclear waste for nuclear power generation in more modern reactors, thus turning what was once hazardous and incredibly long lasting nuclear waste into less hazardous and very short-lived nuclear fuel AND large amounts of clean energy to power our economy and green the planet.

    Or we could waste BILLIONS of tax-payer money on some hair-brained far-leftist scheme that won't work and will actually make the problem worse. I mean, why do the SMART thing and let The People fix the problem through ingenuity and enlightened self-interest? Let's let the Ivory-tower intellectuals have a go at it first so that the proper solution ends up even MORE expensive that it otherwise would be. Look how well that's worked out for our Energy Policy!

    *rolleyes*

  • by lordsid (629982) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:28AM (#24241089)

    Its actually the right thing to do in this case.

    Any monument that they could build that would stand the test of time would only attract attention to the site. People are inquisitive and have no respect for the past. Its not like we believed any of the curses when we raided the tombs of Egypt. Why would it be any different for our future citizens? The scarier that the site is made to look the more people will be interested in it.

    The site itself is hundreds of feet underground and in the middle of nowhere. The chances it being found if left unmarked are very very very small.

    Personally I believe that we are going to be digging up our trash and other waste in the next few hundred years as a fuel source. In that case it would be nice to know where at that radioactive waste went.

  • Re:I for one... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Gnavpot (708731) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:29AM (#24241107)

    I can't think of a better person to solve our energy crisis than a sociologist. They have insights that we scientists and engineers simply lack.

    I know it was meant to be irony - but ironically, you were right.

    He is not solving our energy crisis or any other technical problem. He is looking for solution to a problem which is much more sociological than technical:
    How do we make sure that important information is passed on to our descendants for thousands of years?

    I am an engineer, and I would certainly consider the typical engineer unfit for solving this type of problems.

  • We don't have to. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by QuantumPion (805098) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:34AM (#24241167)

    How do we warn people 10,000 years in the future about our nuclear waste dumps? We don't because we don't have to because we don't have to store waste for 10,000 years.

    It is possible to reprocess [doe.gov] fuel to remove the actinides, which have a long decay time, and recycle them into new fuel. The remaining radioactive waste has a much shorter decay time, on the order of a few hundred years.

  • Re:Orr we could (Score:3, Insightful)

    by VdG (633317) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:34AM (#24241171)

    I agree that it seems the best way of getting rid of it. It'll even be recycled eventually. The biggest stumblinng block for that at the moment is international treaties restricting disposal of hazardous waste at sea.

  • by Dr. Spork (142693) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:36AM (#24241189)

    There is no reason to make waste that's dangerous for 10,000 years. In advanced countries like France, which has the cleanest air and the cheapest power in Europe, the waste from its many reactors is separated and the heavy atoms (which are responsible for almost all long-term radioactivity of unprocessed waste) are fissile and are used to make more electricity.

    They thought about making dumping sites for what remains (and it's far less dangerous than the 10,000-year figure), but nobody liked that, so the waste is stored at the plant itself waiting to be used for something in the future.

    I'm pretty sure that we'll need that stuff for something, and it will be a pain to dig it up.

    With proper reprocessing, reactor waste can be made less radioactive than the mined ore in a span of 300 years, so nuclear power could potentially reduce the radioactivity in the world.

  • by Firethorn (177587) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:39AM (#24241227) Homepage Journal

    Mostly because launching stuff into space isn't anywhere near 100% reliable, and honestly enough, what the politicians are calling 'waste' that has to be safely stored for 10k years is actually still 90-95% of what a nuclear engineer would call 'potential fuel'.

    Let Uranium double in price and reprocessing is suddenly profitable, and not that expensive to do on rods that have been cooling off for the last hundred years.

  • by Thiez (1281866) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:42AM (#24241259)

    You'd think a species advanced enough to master interstellar travel would have invented the geiger counter.

  • by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) * on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:47AM (#24241331) Journal
    while short, these two posts are spot on. We don't have to have "dangerous wastes" if we use the right reactors. IIRC, using an IFR, after 1400 years ,the waste has the same radioactivity as my kitchen countertop (granite). confused one is also correct - Subcrit reactors are another viable direction for low waste reactors, and - both run on thorium, and there's 10x as much thorium as there is uranium.

    We need THESE kind of technologies, NOW. Not 20 years from now.

    I would also note to damburger that the petty despots and terrorists only have power because of state sponsored nuclear terror was practiced live and in action on civilians by the USA (viz Nagasaki and Hiroshima) and held the world hostage in the fear mongering practice of the Cold War by the USA and CCCP. I agree with damburger that it is sad that a small group of asshats is making life exceptionally difficult for the rest of humanity. Remember when you could go to Mexico or Canada and use your Driver's License as ID? Remember a time before the DHS? I do.

    This is all a problem of risk assessment which humans largely suck at. 3000 people died on 9/11, and suddenly a multi-billion dollar dept is thrown together making everyone's travelling life difficult and illegal to take cosmetics or liquids on board and all manner of other over-reactive legal nonsense. Every year 50,000 people die on the highways, but I don't see them making cars illegal. How many people died at 3 mile island? Oh that's right - none. Did it shorten some people's lives? Yes. However, the proper response would have been to build IFRs and subcrits, not ban them altogether. Chernyobl is a different deal - that was people being stupid and destructive, so many people died there. IFRs and subcrits and pebblebeds - these are all VASTLY safer technologies, and Mister and Missus John Q Smith from Anytown USA need to pull their heads out of their asses NOW, and get with the program if they have ANY hope of keeping the lights on in 20 years.

    I don't fancy freezing in the dark, as it would result in the disappearance of the forests, and THAT would suck...

    RS

  • by niloroth (462586) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:47AM (#24241333) Homepage

    i wish i had mod points for this post. We are in essence hiding fuel sources that will be very usable in 10 or so years. All of this because of the short sightedness of the enviro movement. I really can't believe exactly how much we have F'd up this planet with all the carbon burning power sources while we let nuclear power rot in the corner like an unwanted step child.

  • Re:self-solving? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:48AM (#24241347)

    Insightful? Really?

    Note to mods: not everything you see on The Simpsons is accurate.

  • Re:We don't (Score:3, Insightful)

    by postbigbang (761081) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:48AM (#24241351)

    Satellites can do this now. How do you think we detect who's developing nuclear power? It can't be the bunglers at the CIA. It's a bit of a non-issue, a conjecture better discussed in pubs.

  • Re:Orr we could (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Andy Dodd (701) <atd7@NosPaM.cornell.edu> on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:51AM (#24241401) Homepage

    This leads to something I've always wondered.

    We have yet to achieve nuclear fusion that can "break even" and produce more energy than it consumes.

    But we have achieved relatively simple devices that do a very good job of generating neutrons (such as the Farnsworth Fusor). They operate at a net loss - But what if you use such a device to bombard fissionable material with neutrons? The idea is similar - The fissionable material would normally be sub-critical, you would effectively "turn it on" by turning on the fusion device.

  • breeder reactors use 10x the amount of fuel of regular reactors, produce 10x the amount of power, produce 1/10th the amount of waste, and what waste that is has a half life of only a century or two

    so how come we don't use breeder reactors?

    because they can be used to make plutonium

    however, given the choice between dramatic fuel and power reduction, dramatic waste increase and massive half life increase, i'd rather just deal with a little extra plutonium

    somebody in power ha sdecided otherwise

    i don't agree with them

    plus, we can thorium as a fuwel source in addition to uranium, like the indians do

    its not like this isn't being done outside the united states

  • by damburger (981828) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:58AM (#24241539)

    Nuclear power has a massive, massive externality attached to it. You let private industry run it without interference your tap water will glow in the dark before long.

    Its cost efficient to burn fuel for a bit then dump it. Its better for society, both now and in the future, to keep burning the stuff until its broken down into safer isotopes. The market has no mechanism to represent this, and by Goodhart's law trying to apply one would likely be futile.

  • by blueg3 (192743) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:00AM (#24241559)

    Buried radioactive toxic waste is pretty tame compared to the various hazards of space and exploring unknown planets.

  • Re:We don't (Score:5, Insightful)

    by grep_rocks (1182831) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:04AM (#24241621)
    Nuclear waste is a resource, it is radioactive! which means it has stored energy... it is not something to be squirreled away for eternity - it is an energy source for the future - currently it can be burned in breeder reactors in CANDU reactors - the whole concept of storing nuclear waste for ever is ill concieved, it will be used, we should treat it as such.
  • by budgenator (254554) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:04AM (#24241623) Journal

    Radioactive decay is exponential so in ten thousand years, the radiation given off by our "nuclear waste" will be about the same as the ore would have been if we hadn't done anything with it!

    Thats ... typically american. "Don't do anything, it'll fix itself" ... *sigh*

    I suppose that means you've tested your tap water for radioactive and toxic heavy minerals and your home for radon gas.

  • by StrawberryFrog (67065) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:05AM (#24241643) Homepage Journal

    Those silly ancestors, thinking that I wouldn't know anything that they don't.

    For much of human history in Europe (roughly the thousand years from 500CE [wikipedia.org] to 1500CE [wikipedia.org]) it was accepted as fact that the ancients (i.e the Romans) knew far more than was known at the present time. There was a grain of truth to this.

    You assume that a dismissive attitude to the knowledge of the ancients is a given. It isn't. Superstitious awe of a fallen civilisation can last a long time.

  • Re:We don't (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pla (258480) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:07AM (#24241677) Journal
    Try answering the question without assuming that we managed to avoid having to go back to the stone age due to war, plague, famine, etc.

    In that case, who cares?

    They won't have the ability to get 500ft underground, to penetrate 10ft thick steel/concrete walls, or to open the individual containment vessels (designed to withstand a cargo aircraft crash).

    You don't need to worry about both ends of the question. Either future people will know what they've found, or won't have the ability to find or access it.

    And even if they could - If we end up reverting to a stone age culture, we really don't deserve to share this planet, so let 'em all die of radiation poisoning from playing with the pretty glowy powder.
  • by SudoScience (1314289) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:27AM (#24241997) Homepage

    You're exactly right. Plus, all of the fear mongering by this guy assumes two things.

    1: That societies, in 10,000 years, won't have a conception of radiation. It's possible, but only if some global catastrophe wipes out civilization. At that point survival trumps concerns about accidental radiation exposure.

    2: It forgets that we were able to discover radiation without the help of symbols from 10,000 years in the past. Even if future societies didn't understand radiation, there's no reason to think they wouldn't learn it later.

    Oh and if the worst that could happen would be that a couple people accidentally recieve radiation poision thousands of years from now...well lemme put it like this. Tough luck for them!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:35AM (#24242129)

    10,000 years later?

    Aside from the fact that YOU are their ancestor, not they yours, unless you assume they used time travel:

    This question was asked a few years ago, by the US gov't. The problems they found were:

    What lasts 10,000 years, with writing that will be legible. They chose stone. What language would be used in 10,000 years? They decided pictures were the best bet. Would people finding the warnings heed them, or be intrigued, and decide to dig up the artifacts?

    Their reasoned technological decision? Don't mark it, and hope the poor souls in the future don't dig there.

  • by putaro (235078) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:43AM (#24242283) Journal

    Dead on. I think the whole thing is nonsense created by people who want to appear insightful. "Think about the people 10,000 years from now" - wow, what a deep thinker!

    If you follow this logic, then anything that could potentially exist for 10,000 years and might be fatal to someone needs to be properly labeled. You'll know who to blame when your Twinkie wrappers start getting weird hieroglyphics on them.

  • by argStyopa (232550) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:47AM (#24242327) Journal

    The "we'll have waste for 10k years!" is already nonsense.

    As previous posters have pointed out, we ALREADY have the technology to turn 10,000-year waste into 100-year waste with some intelligent choices. I'm quite confident that given another 50 to 100 years of technological advancement, even these will be trivialities by then.

    No, it's (again) simply the fear mongering by naive environmentalists who, unwilling to compromise on a least-worst choice instead of their impossibly utopian alternatives, have effectively prevented nuclear energy from developing in the US for 30+ years. That's the real Inconvenient Truth. Congratulations, I guess.

  • by bonehead (6382) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:49AM (#24242359)

    Just use a drawing of the drum itself, and have it surrounded by dead humans lying on the ground.

  • by Azghoul (25786) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:52AM (#24242409) Homepage

    Funny, but I would think the threat of death to those poisoning others with nuclear waste would be a pretty simple mechanism.

    Gov't doesn't have to tell use what to do with nuclear waste. Gov't just has to tell us what gov't is supposed to tell us: Don't fuck up someone else's rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    Law should severely punish those who do - but right now we've allowed corporations to buy their way out of all kinds of trouble... and THAT is your "massive externality".

  • by damburger (981828) on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:02AM (#24242565)

    You are talking about an ideal government that turns its nose up at every bribe and has a constant and competent concern for the wellbeing of its citizens. Yeah fucking right.

    Either a government controls commerce itself (and we know how that turns out) or a government runs the country according to business interests, in which case business interests are essentially government, and you are in the same boat - albeit with competitive forces providing enough of an efficiency boost to stop the whole thing collapsing.

    Those who have read my posts probably know where I am going with this. Both government and corporation are flawed structures, and it isn't surprising considering that they tend to share management techniques, and people easily migrate between the top echelons of the two. The fact is we simply have no proven way to do things well on a large scale, and this is greatly hampers our efforts with regard to solving poverty, securing a new energy source before our existing one runs out, and migrating beyond the Earth.

    We need radical new thinking (and before you ask, I don't have anything concrete that I can't see the flaws in myself) - and we need it fast. How humans organise and coordinate their efforts needs a fundamental overhaul.

  • by penguin_dance (536599) on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:14AM (#24242809)

    The article that sparked this Slashdot post is by some know-nothing Ivory tower far leftist. Full of 10 dollar words, long on speculation and short on facts.

    Thank you! We have, of course, uranium and other naturally radioactive minerals in the earth right now. And yet we've mostly avoided exposure (except by early scientists who worked with them.) This author could have just summed his article into one sentence: I hate nuclear power.

    If we end up back in the stone age it will be BECAUSE of people like Ulrich Beck who jump up and down about climate change, but then complain that no solution is good enough. THOSE are the people who would have us living back in time with no electric, no cars and eating berries and twigs because cows pass too much methane [latimes.com]!

    Mr. Beck might be interested to know there is ALREADY a universal warning sign denoting radioactivity [wikipedia.org].

    Perhaps if we add a "Mr. Yuck" symbol [wikipedia.org]....

  • by MarkusQ (450076) on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:20AM (#24242923) Journal

    People who claim to understand breeder reactors and why they are the solution to every energy problem must first explain why no one is lining up to buy nuclear waste.

    Why aren't people lining up to but nuclear waste? Maybe because it's effectively illegal to do anything with it other than store it on the site where it was produced and/or feed it into one of three(?) approved bureaucratic channels for permanent storage / disposal.

    Just try announcing that you're going to set up a breeder reactor and write to a few people with nuclear waste asking what their "Buy It Now" price is, and see how that works out for you.

    --MarkusQ

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:30AM (#24243073)

    Full of 10 dollar words, long on speculation and short on facts.

    Only in America can you be a philistine, and proud of it.

  • by Rival (14861) on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:39AM (#24243219) Homepage Journal

    After all, if you found a stone tablet in some ancient ruins, wouldn't it seem like a reasonable assumption that the writing on it was all the same language?

    It is a reasonable assumption, but one that can be quickly validated or negated by examination of the tablet. Take the Rosetta Stone [wikipedia.org], for example. Even for non-linguists, it is easy to see that there are three different character sets being used. Even when the same (or a very similar) character set is being used, a message of sufficient length will often show indicators that a different language is being used. The fact that different languages are being used can also be indicated by layout.

    As regards the question about warning labels, it makes sense to use an engraving or an inlay of some sort. This will allow the message to last for thousands of years, as well as indicate to future viewers that this message was intended for posterity. On said label, present several large symbols to indicate danger or death -- say, skull-and-crossbones (or a full skeleton image,) the Mr. Yuk [wikipedia.org] icon, and Clippy [wikipedia.org]. Then, in each language, write a brief "DANGER" message in a large font, followed by a more detailed warning in a smaller font. Follow the languages up with the same warning icons, to help reinforce the message. Something like:

    Skeleton Icon . . . . . Mr. Yuk . . . . . Clippy

    WARNING! this is a dangerous area. Do not dig here. Do not eat or drink from this area.

    ACHTUNG! Dies ist eine gefährliche Gegend. Nicht graben hier. Arbeit nicht essen und trinken aus diesem Bereich.

    ATTENTION! il s'agit d'une zone dangereuse. Ne pas creuser ici. Ne pas manger ou boire dans ce domaine.

    (I would insert more languages here, but Slashdot's Unicode support is weak)

    Skeleton Icon . . . . . Mr. Yuk . . . . . Clippy

    Make the detailed warning about medium-sized paragraph or so, and use very simple sentence-structures. The corpus of the text would not likely be enough to allow a full translation, but with a dozen or so languages, there is a good chance that larger texts exist elsewhere in one or more of the languages that will provide the key words used in the warning message.

  • 90% FUD (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:51AM (#24243437)

    There is a difference between "radioactive" and "dangerously radioactive". After all, considering that right now YOUR body contains some Carbon-14, YOU are radioactive. Does that mean you need to be locked away for thousands of years until the radiation dissipates? HA! The fact of the matter is that most of the waste from nuclear fission plants will decay to non-dangerous levels after about 600 years. It will still be radioactive, but the level of that radioactivity will be equivalent to the natural background level and can be safely ignored.

    As a check, to properly understand what an ignorable level of radiation is, start with U-238, which has a half-life of about 4 billion years, so this means that 4 billion years ago, the Earth had twice as much of it then as it does now. K-40 has a half-life of about 1 billion years, so 1 billion years ago it was twice as common as now, 2 billion years ago it was 4 times a common as now, 3 billion years ago it was 8 times as common as now, and 4 billion years ago it was 16 times as common as now. (About 1% of today's global atmosphere is argon-40, because of the radioactive decay of only 11% of all that K-40 over the past 4 billion years; the other 89% that decayed became calcium-40.) U-235 has a half-life of about 700 million years, so 4 billion years ago it was more than 50 times as common as now. I won't bother to list other radioactive isotopes that can be examined similarly, but the point is, LIFE EVOLVED AMIDST ALL THAT RADIATION, 4 billion years ago. If radiation was as horrible as they want you to believe, such that we need to worry about nuclear wastes for 10,000 years, we simply wouldn't be here (and a large area near to Chernobyl would be barren, which it isn't).

    So, the problem is, how do we warn people to stay away for about 600 years? The answer is: WRONG PARADIGM.

    For a number of decades, mostly because of NASA's needs and deeds, ways have existed to obtain useful energy from radioactive decay. It's not a lot of energy, but then, not a lot of radioactive material is used in a typical SNAP (System for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) generator. So imagine all that radioactive material thought of as "waste" instead being used to generate power. A decent amount of power, probably. Power sources are desired, right? Even if civilization collapses, a power source which can last a long time will be desired! That means, after a Collapse, people will go to that site, who KNOW about it. They will also know the dangers. It will qualify as a place for civilization to get started again --and over a long-enough period of time, it will also need to be maintained! The knowledge associated with its existence will survive, simply because people will want that power. Until the radiation levels decay to the point it's neither useful nor dangerous. RIGHT PARADIGM.

  • Re:We don't (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:55AM (#24243511) Homepage

    In that case, who cares?

    They won't have the ability to get 500ft underground, to penetrate 10ft thick steel/concrete walls, or to open the individual containment vessels (designed to withstand a cargo aircraft crash).

    They probably will eventually. If we're asking what will happen if we blow ourselves back to the Stone Age, well then that assumes we have survived, and humanity goes on. Humanity will learn, just as it always has. Humanity will progress from its new Stone Age to its new Bronze Age. They will learn how to work metals, and over time they will eventually learn how to dig into the ground to find more metals. Maybe even learning to harness some chemical reactions to make the job easier. Think of it this way -- a mid-1850s level society would be perfectly capable of digging that far into the ground and cutting through the barriers, but would have no idea what radiation is or what its dangers are.

    Time doesn't stand still. We can't assume our society will last forever, and we can't assume that if that happens that no new society will develop, or that it will forever remain primitive. And especially with all the artifacts that will be left behind by the current civilization to serve as examples, 10,000 years is a long time for that to happen.

    So what we should really do to warn off any future peoples is not try to create some language-less warning that will be ignored like every other symbolic "stay out, death awaits" warning found on an ancient tomb. No what we need to do is leave a Rosetta Stone, a durable and static writing that holds the same text in many different languages, so that any future scholar is likely to be familiar with at least one of them. And the text should be a lengthy and detailed description of what is inside the vault, not in vague scary terms, but in precise and scientific terms.

    If we tell them exactly what the material is, exactly what its dangers are, and what precautions are necessary to avoid them, that will work a thousand times better than any "Don't look in the secret vault of mystery, trust us" style of warning.

    And even if they could - If we end up reverting to a stone age culture, we really don't deserve to share this planet, so let 'em all die of radiation poisoning from playing with the pretty glowy powder.

    Yeah, I'm sure that at its height some Romans felt that should their civilization fall, humanity was a lost cause. I'm not so ready to condemn far-flung future generations for the sins of their ancestors. I think they deserve their own shot, without us cynically placing land mines for them.

  • by StrawberryFrog (67065) on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:59AM (#24243567) Homepage Journal

    But "all of that" of the Romans wasn't destroyed. There were still lots of texts and crumbling buildings. It just took a long time for the veneration of the texts "from the wise ancients" to die down enough for people to start experimenting for themselves. Galileo [wikipedia.org]'s observations that the Earth went around the Sun not vice versa were considered so radical in 1610 because it was different to what Ptolemy and Aristotle had said was the truth [wikipedia.org].

  • by meringuoid (568297) on Friday July 18, 2008 @12:04PM (#24243635)
    10 years back it seemed sky is limit for CPU clock and therefore speed. Now we know its not easy to go much above 5 GHz in consumer-grade generic CPU, even if you employ some of the best scientists and engineers around the globe.

    My Athlon XP 2000+ (from 2003), ran at 1.66GHz. My Core 2 Duo 8200 (from 2008) runs at 2.66GHz. Clock rate increase in five years: 60%. Unimpressive, I'm sure you'll agree.

    I fished out some benchmarks I programmed when I was first playing with Python on the old machine. Still had the output file showing timings for sorting lists of random numbers by bubblesort and quicksort. And I ran the same code on the new box.

    Number-crunching performance increase in five years: 400%.

    Oh, and that old code - being just me, a few years ago, implementing sort algorithms to learn a new language - was certainly not multi-threaded. There was a second core, just as powerful as the first, sitting idle. So total computational power increase in five years: 800%.

    I don't know about you, but I'm pretty well satisfied with that rate of progress. Gigahertz aren't everything, haven't been for a long time.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 18, 2008 @12:20PM (#24243857)

    Numbers are numbers, no matter what language you use.

    Why isn't there an international format for that? We need to be able to write decimals AND coordinates in the same strings without having to deduce which field/topic the number refers to.

    Space for thousands, period for decimals, commas for coordinates/groups. Is that too hard?

    It's like those stupid non-ISO dates. What a fuckin' mess. And people still write "08" instead of the whole "2008". That's gonna help a lot when civilization goes into the 2100's, given that documents are now digital, we can presume they'll still be there in 2108. Good luck sorting that. Y2K all over again, in less than a century.

  • by Animats (122034) on Friday July 18, 2008 @12:40PM (#24244179) Homepage

    First, Yucca Mountain is in an area where atmospheric nuclear blasts [doe.gov] used to be conducted without bothering anybody. You can still go there and see the craters. The site was chosen partly because it's very remote.

    Second, any future clueless explorers digging in that area would have to be well-equipped. They're going to have to bash their way through a considerable amount of steel and concrete, so they'll need some mining technology. Then when they get to the concrete casks enclosing stainless steel tubes of glass enclosing radioactive materials, they have to get those open. Then some of them die within a few days, and it finally dawns on the rest of them that they've found something that was buried because it was dangerous, not valuable.

    The problem is not going to spread. If you just had a nuclear fuel rod lying in the open, it wouldn't be dangerous fifty feet away. To get a large scale hazard, you have to grind it into powder and put it in food or water.

  • by Firethorn (177587) on Friday July 18, 2008 @12:55PM (#24244373) Homepage Journal

    1. They might be 'hard' but France has been operating one for years. I'd argue that we've made more progress with them than we have for economic solar.
    2a. The amount of water needed can be varied. In any case, the 'huge' amounts water used is generally put right back into the source, just maybe downstream less than a mile, and the only difference is that it's slightly warmer. A larger flow allows more cooling, increasing efficiency, while putting the water back at even less of a difference. It becomes a matter of - as long as we have the water, might as well use it.
    2b. Coal power [nbii.gov] suffers [ajc.com] from the same problem, normally using loads of water as well.
    3. No research necessary, the steam techniques for nuclear and coal power are identical - just more expensive than having a convienent river or lake. Even ocean, though the salt presents it's own problems.
    4. Newer plant designs, possibly prototyped in India or China are much cheaper, and at least the current administration is working on streamlining/reducing the regulatory costs. As for the plebes - well, most don't actively remember Chernobyl, much less TMI. With the environmental concerns, I see resistance to nuclear power weakening. If they get smart and use the nuclear plant in a cogeneration/trigeneration fashion to support some industry(such as ethanol, depolymerization, oil sand/shale processing or hydrogen), you can get your load balancing and increase the efficiency of the plant by a great deal.
    5. I don't see how Wind&Solar can cover our needs economically - and safety wise nuclear power is so safe that I wouldn't be surprised if the extra miles workers end up driving to perform maintenance leads to enough accidents to make it less safe than nuclear.
    6. The price point to beat isn't 20 cents/KWh, it's more like 5 cents/KWh.
    7. Variable rate billing already exists, I'm having it installed for this winter. Living in the boonies, I'm currently on propane heat. With oil prices - propane is now more expensive than electric, so I'm switching to an off-peak electrical heating system. If I _really_ need heat during a peak period(or the electric just can't keep up), then the propane furnace will kick on.
    8. I'd love to see a battery that stores twice the electricity at half the price, but I haven't seen anything that's convinced me that it's not vapor at this point. We do have high efficiency alternative methods that are cheaper at utility levels, and if electric cars ever become major there's a lot of tricks you could play with them, but I'm not holding my breath.

  • by Animats (122034) on Friday July 18, 2008 @01:20PM (#24244729) Homepage

    Good point. After 300 years or so, gamma emissions are way down, and spent fuel rods can be handled with fewer precautions.

    So the real concern at that point is not future radiation-ignorant miners. It's someone who wants to extract the plutonium from spent fuel rods and make a bomb. Anyone doing that will know about radiation.

  • by Karganeth (1017580) on Friday July 18, 2008 @01:28PM (#24244843)

    Nuclear power has a massive, massive externality attached to it. You let private industry run it without interference your tap water will glow in the dark before long.

    A common misconception. Radioactive substances do not glow...

  • by Firethorn (177587) on Friday July 18, 2008 @01:47PM (#24245101) Homepage Journal

    While a complex language, I'd think that it's a good one in that it's one that many people on earth know(in China, at least), it's got a long history behind it(therefore less likely to be lost, more likely to be rediscovered), and is in a different area - whatever takes us down might not take them down as bad.

  • by electroniceric (468976) on Friday July 18, 2008 @04:43PM (#24247563)

    Although I was and still am a fan of Jimmy Carter, I think this is not too far from true:

    Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer, knew the difference but decided to appease the ignorant luddite anti-nuke crowd that made no distinction between nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.

    but this is a bit of a stretch:

    By perpetuating the myth of "breeder reactor = nuclear warheads" from the executive office, he essentially saddled us with 30 years worth of dangerous nuclear "waste" that is really just nuclear fuel that's 90% unused.

    To believe the latter statement, you have to wholesale buy into the rosiest projections of the nuclear power industry about the efficiency with which they can use fuel.

    Frankly I was a bit disappointed by TFA. It's true that discussions about nuclear power have turned largely polemic, with the engineering-is-always-good and anti-GW crowds combining to claim that nuclear will save us if we just let it, and the knee-jerk-environmentalists and fatalists saying that nukes are just another for man to damage the planet and wipe himself. Lost in the shuffle is the fact that nukes have the prospect to be extraordinarily dangerous yet extraordinarily useful. I was hoping the article would talk about what it might take to get a real handle on the risks, rather than remark on what a shame it is people aren't considering the risks enough.

    The most cogent view I've heard on the subject in years is that the government should be in charge of any nuclear power plants since it's the one that's always going to end up with final responsibility for any problems. That's pretty compelling statement of the key risk, and one of the more frightening part of the nuclear question in the States is that we're supposed to trust GE and Westinghouse's "Ecomagination" flavor of the month to deliver safe nuclear reactors and then stand by them decade after decade to run them without accidents or piles nuclear waste ubernasties running loose. Then again, the government did a nice job putting waste into Simpsonesque barrels in Hanford and then dragging its little DOE feet on doing anything about it when it became clear than any answer would be neither profitable nor popular, and likewise losing barrels of waste in that Air Force base in Colorado.

    So that's the problem - what institution public or private is really going to be careful enough for long enough to be trusted to deal with making, using, and disposing of nuclear fuel? With good enough engineering regulations in place (and enforced), I believe that the plants themselves can be engineered not be deathtraps themselves, but it's the question of what to do with the materials where the estimation of risk is still pretty wide open. Nobody can agree whether Yucca Mountain is safe, so what's supposed to happen when 500 Yucca mountains are needed?

  • by saforrest (184929) on Friday July 18, 2008 @05:05PM (#24247829) Homepage Journal

    Short of world ending event, which is almost impossible, we will retain most, if not all of our information.

    But much of the Romans' information was retained as well... or at least, far more than anybody in the medieval era was willing to extend.

    Even if all our data does survive, it's a different question of whether the culture necessary to interpret and use it effectively will. As long as the data survives, *someone* will re-learn things and use it eventually, but we could contemplate a period of medieval-style stasis, during which information is preserved and revered but not extended.

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