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Power Government Politics

Warning Future Generations About Nuclear Waste 616

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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  • Orr we could (Score:5, Informative)

    by clonan ( 64380 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:07AM (#24240797)

    Reprocess the waste, and then "burn" the long term waste off in breeder type reactors.

    We can get 10,000 year hazardous waste to 100 year hazardous waste....

  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:36AM (#24241187)

    In subduction zones part of the material keeps getting pushed around the edge for a long time before being dragged under. In 10000 years a lot of the material would still be sitting there.

    But there are some parts of the ocean bottom that have remained stable for at least a billion years. We could enclose the material in glass or ceramic cylinders and bury them in the bottom of the sea. If anyone has the technology and the motive to dig 100 meters in mud that's under 5000 meters of water, one can assume they will have knowledge of the dangers of radioactive material.

    Besides, that's a good way to keep it away from terrorists, too. Even if they could locate the exact spots where to dig, they wouldn't want to go to so much effort, there are easier ways to accomplish their ends.

  • by mj01nir ( 153067 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:40AM (#24241237)
    This is well trodden land for /. : This Place is Not a Place of Honor [] Radioactive Warning for Future Generations [] Check out the official SANDIA report: []
  • Deep time (Score:3, Informative)

    by Tony ( 765 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:40AM (#24241239) Journal

    Wow. It's not like Gregory Benford addressed this same problem [] back in 2000 or anything. Nope. This is a brand-new problem that nobody's thought about before.

  • Re:We don't (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:46AM (#24241313)
    Wow! We've got some long-lived ancestors! None of mine made it past 80-90 years old. My decendants, on the other hand....
  • Re:We don't (Score:5, Informative)

    by Tacvek ( 948259 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:53AM (#24241425) Journal

    Of course, there is little reason to worry about the long term if we use an intelegent reactor design.

    The Integral Fast Reactor design's only waste products have a half life of 90 years or less, or 211,100 years or more. The latter components clearly give off very little radiation per unit time, so they can basically be ignored. It is the other components that give off significant radiation. However, within 200 years the waste radiation levels are no greater than that of natural ores. This means that it is reasonably safe to just bury it.

    The design has other advantages too:

    1. Fuel does not need to be precisely shaped, but can be cast into the correct shape
    2. It is easier to make weapons-grade fuel from natural uranium than from the fuel. The waste contains no actinides so is worthless for creation of nuclear weapons. This means the reactor is really not a proliferation concern.
    3. Because spent fuel is reprocessed in site to extract the non-spent components from it, the total amount of waste produced is tiny compared to the more common reactor designs

    Of course, there are a few downsides, the most notable is the fact that the plant would have higher construction costs than most, and would have higher cost per kilowatt than most.
    See [] for more information on this reactor design.

  • by Ambiguous Puzuma ( 1134017 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:11AM (#24241745)

    For the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [], this is the solution that was developed:
    Permanent Markers Implementation Plan, United States Department of Energy, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [] (PDF)

    Some brainstorming that led to the above document--this contains some of the more "exotic" ideas that were considered:
    Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant [] (PDF)
    Excerpts in HTML format []

    Overview of warnings for Yucca Mountain []

    Basically, the idea is to take a multi-layered approach, starting with simple "Danger" warnings (both symbolic and in current languages, large scale and small), and finishing with detailed scientific information about what we will have buried. There will be instructions to add new structures with translations into whatever languages will have arisen in future societies. Sturdy but low-value materials will be used. There are a lot of other considerations; the "Expert Judgement..." document is an interesting read.

    I agree with the other posters saying that reprocessing should make all of this moot, though.

  • by flattop100 ( 624647 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:38AM (#24242183)
    If that sociologist had a done a little research, he'd find out that this stuff is already being looked at at the WIPP []
    • 1. Large Surface Markers - The conceptual design calls for 32 Large Surface Markers erected on the perimeter of the controlled area, and 16 markers erected on the perimeter of the repository footprint, within the Berm. Each marker will consist of two separate stone monoliths joined by a mortise-and-tenon joint; the lower member will be a truncated pyramid and the upper member will be a right prism.
    • 2. Small Subsurface Markers - The Small Subsurface Markers will be small buried disks warning of the presence of the repository. They will be buried throughout the repository footprint, within the Berm, and within the shaft seals. They will be randomly spaced and buried at depths ranging from two to six feet below the surface.
    • 3. Berm - The Berm will enclose an area that is 110 percent of the repository footprint. As currently planned, it will have a core base material of salt; the core will be protected by at least two other types of materials. Magnets and Radar Reflectors will be buried in the Berm. These will be buried at specified intervals in the Berm, producing distinctive anomalous magnetic and radar-reflective signatures. A Buried Storage Room will also be constructed at grade inside the Berm on its south side.
    • 4. Buried Storage Rooms - One Buried Storage Room will be buried within the Berm. This room will be constructed at grade level at the center of the southern section of the Berm. It will be completely covered by Berm material. A second Buried Storage Room will be buried in the controlled area outside of the Berm and the repository footprint. This room will be buried approximately 20 feet below the surface, north of the Berm on a line passing through the Information Center, the center of the northern and southern sections of the Berm and the Hot Cell.
    • 5. Hot Cell - This is an existing reinforced concrete 40-by-70 foot structure with walls 4.5 feet thick. Its foundation extends 30 feet below grade, and the roof is 60 feet above grade. The Hot Cell will remain after closure as an "archeological remnant," effectively serving the function of an additional permanent marker.
    • 6. Information Center - The Information Center will be an open structure having a rectangular design. It will be located on the land surface at the center of the repository footprint.
  • by redmoss ( 108579 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:48AM (#24242333) Homepage

    Actually, when you say "ivory-tower leftist", you're putting him in "American" terms. He's actually German. They have an (irrational?) phobia of nuclear power over there. In fact, they passed a law recently that all of their nuclear power stations have to be decommissioned within the next 5-10 years. They're re-thinking that now due to the carbon emissions problem, but the die-hard greens are talking "constitutional amendment" to force a permanent ban.

    Heck, I have some friends from Germany, and they've told me about devices you can buy there which are designed to "shut off power if they detect electricity from nuclear plants". Yes, I don't even think that's possible.

    The ingrained, instinctive dislike of nuclear power is really kind of nutty when you think about it, and I'm not sure where it comes from. Maybe due to being on the front lines between the nuclear-equipped Americans and Soviets during the cold war?

  • Re:We don't (Score:3, Informative)

    by Deadplant ( 212273 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:19AM (#24242903)

    That is not the case here in Canada.
    All the 'spent' fuel from our reactors is still being stored 'temporarily' in pools of water on the reactor sites.
    I don't think it is the case in the USA either.
    Folks are still battling away trying to come up with a long term storage site and system.
    The 'under a mountain' (yucca mountain or something like that?) plan was the leader last time i checked.
    It is still a long way from actually happening.

    I can understand your confusion though. The 'bury it under a mountain' plan has been 'a decade away' for 50 years.

  • by bobcat7677 ( 561727 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:48AM (#24243399) Homepage
    Actually, I think we are a bit "smarter" then you think. Or else you are misinformed about how we use nuclear fuel. The "spent" fuel we store in our dumps is still highly radioactive and quite useful for powering stuff for years. The problem is that we have disallowed ourselves from further refining it to make it useful through the treaties meant to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I heard one researcher throw out figures that suggested we could run all the world's reactors for something like 300+ years on all the "waste" that is currently in dumps if we were allowed to recycle (refine it again).
  • Re:self-solving? (Score:3, Informative)

    by ichigo 2.0 ( 900288 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @01:40PM (#24244991)
    The GP says that if we treated toxic waste the same way we treat much more dangerous pollutants we would burn the stuff. Then he chides the public for their ignorance. After which you appear and ask him to die for his "proposal" which is a strawman set up by you.

    Sometimes I think calling the public "ignorant" is too kind...
  • by DrOct ( 883426 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @03:02PM (#24246037) Homepage
    Actually putting it in multiple languages, would, likely, aid them in translating it. The main reason we can read hieroglyphics today is because someone discovered the Rosetta Stone which had the same text in hieroglyphics and ancient Greek. We didn't know much about hieroglyphics, but we did know a fair amount about ancient Greek, so it was useful in figuring out the ancient Egyptian scripts. Sure if they have no knowledge whatsoever about any of the languages, then they're screwed. But you'd increase the chances that they'd have at least some scraps of knowledge about at least one of the languages used, maybe even a few, and thus might increase the chances of translating it. If they have no context whatsoever for any of them they'd have a lot of trouble translating it anyway, (there are still a few mostly untranslated ancient languages, such as Linear A []), so adding other languages (especially if they're clearly separated) wouldn't likely really screw them any more than just having one.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 18, 2008 @03:12PM (#24246165)

    Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer...

    This continues to be perpetuated, but it is inaccurate, at best: [] []

    Not trying to pick on you, as what you wrote was sensible, just tired of seeing this "President Carter, nuclear expert" myth.

    - T

  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @03:44PM (#24246633)

    Because, you know, stuff underwater doesn't ever leak.

    Funny thing is, it doesn't. In the last fifty years several nuclear submarines were lost in the seas. None had radioactive leaks strong enough to locate them. To find a lost nuclear submarine, you have to go through the same process it takes to find any sunken ship, find a trail of debris in the bottom of the ocean and track it down to the main disaster area.


  • by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @06:00PM (#24248441) Homepage Journal

    1. That's the thing, in NEVADA it might be a political death sentence - but it's mostly over the storage of long term, unrecycled nuclear waste. What I'm proposing would probably cut the opposition by a huge portion - storage of less material that'll remain dangerous for a much shorter period of time.
    2a. We don't see more closed systems because it costs more, is the simple answer. A system that is water-neutral(IE you load it with water once, maybe have the occasional flush), might have cooling systems that cost 10X as much as one that uses a river. Cheapest is single pass - you simply run river water through your big radiators. Next would be cooling towers - using evaporation of a portion of the water to cool things down. Most expensive is a dry air radiation system. With the first two systems, there's nothing preventing you from feeding the water into a municipal system afterwards.
    3. And you'd be right, just see 2a. It can be cheaper just to shut down a couple months every 40 years than to build sufficient cooling. In the case I'm thinking of, what happened is that the temperature of the water in the river went over what the plant was allowed to release water at - blocking them from using the water for cooling, period. Possible solutions might be cooling towers(low river levels wouldn't help) or increased dry passive cooling ability, which would admittably be difficult given the heat wave at the time.
    4. In many areas that's not sufficient anymore. Gas prices are hurting people.
    5. I wasn't talking about construction deaths, I was talking about fatalities from traffic accidents/rollovers for the maintenance crews. Wind power is disbursed, and those turbines aren't maintenance free.
    6. What you pay matters if you're looking at putting a turbine or solar panels up on your property. What the utility is willing to pay matters if you're looking to sell the power to the grid. And while you pay 15, I pay 8. I'd pay less if I used more than 1k kwh/month. Figure 2-3 cents to maintain the transmission equipment, leaving ~5 cents/kwh for baseband power. By that standard wind and solar are still not economical for baseload, and those figures probably don't include the necessary backups if the power goes out.
    7. If it's truly going to save you money in the long run, home improvement loans shouldn't be hard to get. Yes, it's going to cost me some money - I'm going to need 2 meters, for example. One will be for my heating stuff(electric heater for the furnace, water heater), one will be for house power for on demand applications.
    8. Love to see a game change. I've just seen so many technologies that offer promis but don't pan out. I've become a little cynical. Remember - cheap, reliable electricity is needed if EVs are to become economical. Nuclear power plants can provide that.

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