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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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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:14AM (#24240913)

    Lovins [] stated that nuclear power isn't that cost effective. If it were, the nuclear industry would have easily built more plants. Regulation isn't that big of a blocker. He didn't give any hard numbers and I have never seen them myself, but an interesting point of view, never the less.

    I personally think the environmental excuse is just that: an excuse. The industry folks want to say something better than - we can't make enough money off of it - not PC.

    The same goes for oil refineries. Refineries haven't had to work at full capacity, but the AM radio guys love to blame the "environmentalist whackjobs" for our gas prices.

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

    by damburger ( 981828 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:17AM (#24240951)
    We could. In fact, we could do that right now using the Integral Fast Reactor, except that its apparently a proliferation risk. We are willing to give up probably the cleanest source of nuclear energy developed so far, just because we are afraid of petty despots and terrorists getting their hands on a nuke. We are letting a tiny, tiny minority of small minded psychopaths determine the technological evolution of the human race, simply because we are scared.
  • Re:We don't (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Captain Hook ( 923766 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:18AM (#24240963)

    actually I see it the opposite way round.

    In the short term (200-500 years), there is less chance of a industrial breakdown which might hamper our ability to detect radiation, and even if it does, I think our language will still be close enough to catch the gist of a warning sign (which should also still be intact if not exposed to the weather).

    In the long term, chance of a complete technological break down is increased (although I suppose the chance of a recovery and relearning the necessary skills is increased as well) and there is a good chance language will have changed sufficiently to make understanding any sign we leave now a mystery (assuming a sign we leave could last 10000 years).

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

    by confused one ( 671304 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:20AM (#24240979)
    Thank you. And another possibility is accelerator driven subcritical reactors. Not only does it burn all of the fuel, it is safer -- turn off the particle accelerator and the reactor shuts down.
  • by mikael ( 484 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:20AM (#24240987)

    In ancient Egypt, in the time of the Pharoahs, medicine was stored in specially made clay pots which had a face moulded into the pot. In that way, the patients could differentiate between cooking herbs and medicinal products.

    Maybe a giant scary face would be one way. But there was an early slashot article where the solution was to have the area covered with black marble and have lots of sharp points triangles sticking up out of the ground.

  • Re:self-solving? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Compholio ( 770966 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:21AM (#24241005)

    I would think the increasing number of skeletal remains as one approaches the dump would be sufficient.

    Actually, that would probably work - instead of putting a sign up with a skull and crossbones you could manufacture non-biodegradable human remains and use those as your "sign". (thus avoiding the confusion mentioned in TFA)

  • by Colonel Korn ( 1258968 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:22AM (#24241025)

    Why not a huge granite sculture of a human skull with thee eye sockets?

    One of the official goals of the Yucca Mountain warning project is to prevent extra-terrestrials from accidental exposure (seriously). I don't think three eye sockets would necessarily mean much in that case.

  • Re:We don't (Score:5, Interesting)

    by njfuzzy ( 734116 ) <ian&ian-x,com> on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:28AM (#24241085) Homepage

    I was thinking something similar, though I suspect it's about slightly more sophisticated logic. Something like this...

    If our ancestors are sufficiently technologically advanced, they are overwhelmingly likely to have technology to detect and/or dispose of nuclear waste far more efficiently than we are. In this case, we don't need to warn them.

    On the other hand, if our ancestors aren't sufficiently technologically advanced (to do the steps above) then they are also overwhelmingly likely not to have survived 10,000 years on a planet with global warming and 10,050 years of nuclear waste. In that case, we don't need to warn then.

  • by d3ac0n ( 715594 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:32AM (#24241137)

    That, and the fact that it is highly unlikely that neo-cavemen would even be ABLE to dig hundreds of feet down into bedrock to get close enough to the waste for it to do any harm.

    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.

    In other words, "Nothing to see here, move along".

  • by JSBiff ( 87824 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:32AM (#24241141) Journal

    The parent is right. I don't know a whole lot about Nuclear Physics, but it's something I've been trying to read up on lately. The thing about 'spent' nuclear fuel, is that it still does have, as the parent points out, the potential to be reprocessed and burned again. I'm not entirely clear on this, but from what I've read, I think they can reprocess it quite a few times, until it's eventually at a fairly low energy and stable state to where, like the parent said, it's only dangerous for a short time.

    What people don't realize is back in the 70's, the US was looking into the possibility of setting up breeder reactors to reprocess fuel. The Carter administration made the decision to, for the time being, defer re-processing the fuel, with the given reason that they were concerned about the ability to secure the Plutonium which is produced in the re-processing. That is, breeder reactors process 'spent' Uranium into a mixture of Uranium and Plutonium, I think (which can then be used as a fuel for a plutonium power reactor). The problem is, if someone diverted even *very small* amounts of the plutonium, which might be hard to detect because of how small an amount is missing, they could over time possibly accumulate enough material to build a small but powerful bomb, or at least a dirty bomb. Steal a few grams here, a few grams there, eventually you have a few kilograms.

    Plus, there was an economic argument against it at the time - Uranium was cheap and abundant, so it was simply cheaper to keep burning 'new' Uranium, than to reprocess the spent Uranium. My understanding is that, at least currently, some of the processing and enrichment necessary to turn it into Plutonium fuel, hasn't been figured out how to do very econically effectively. There have been various Breeder reactor's put up in other countries, I think I read there are some in Europe and Asia, but so far the current designs, I guess, haven't turned out to be very economically competitive against other energy sources.

          Personally, as I indicate in my subject for this post, I view Yucca Mountain not as a waste site, a dumping ground, but more like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. We are saving the spent Uranium until the time we need it and and have figured out the technologies necessary to efficiently and cheaply reproccess it, and how to secure it better. Because it stays 'hot' for 10000 years, it means we have plenty of time in which to figure out how to reprocess it and make an economically viable energy source out of it. In that regard, the extremely long time spans might be quite to our advantage, as it means we aren't, really, losing significant potential energy each year it's sitting in storage. In the meantime, we just keep buying 'new' Uranium and building up our strategic reserve.

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

    by Tacvek ( 948259 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @09:57AM (#24241519) Journal

    The IFR is not actually a proliferation risk. The Wiki notes that it is easier to enrich natural uranium than to create weapons-grade material from the fuel. And the waste has no actinides at all, making it worthless for nuclear weapons. The only reason it was killed was because keeping it around would give the appearance of not doing enough to prevent proliferation, rather than it being a real risk. In other words, it was killed for political reasons, not technical.

  • Re:We don't (Score:2, Interesting)

    by laederkeps ( 976361 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:00AM (#24241565) Homepage
    My first thought on the subject was "Intricate graphics", like drawings of people exposed to danger in some material that doesn't deteriorate heavily with time.

    Two problems immediately spring to mind.

    First: The signs themselves might be valuable (think copper, brass, etc), and left out in the open for hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years they will certainly not stay attached to the ground. It's the way humans work.
    Fine, let's imprint this on the vaults far underground that we don't expect a "primitive" civilization to be able to reach. Make it really hard to get inside them. Leave no apparent entrance, seal the whole thing with concrete riddled with these warnings in all conceivable and redundant ways to make sure we get the message across.

    Second: What we depict in the signs (Say, somehow making an invisible lethal force apparent, somehow showing that while nothing seems to be there it will kill you nonetheless) might not be interpreted as we expect it to.
    Perhaps it will be seen as some sign from god instead of a warning from older civilizations (Don't look at me like that, you know it will be taken as the word of a higher being by at least some future nutcase with or without an agenda).
    Perhaps it will be ignored completely as either a fake or a deterrant.
    Anything worth protecting with an invisible magical curse is worth prying open and stealing! Remember the pyramids? Monkey see, monkey want, monkey take.

    Personally, I don't think we can "protect" our future tomb raiders from what we've hidden in these "treasure chambers" in any way other than to first ensure they receive all the information we have amassed about anything from biology to physics. Make sure that is stored in a more accessible (but still safe in the event of disasters/war/annihilation/etc) way that they will find when they are "ready". Multiple backups scattered across the globe, multiple formats that can be read with nothing but eyes and perhaps opposable thumbs to flip the pages.

    I think we will eventually be wiped out by our own enormous hostility, and eventually some other civilization, indeed some other lifeform, might "inherit" the earth. Why not give them a jump start?
  • Re:Orr we could (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mgblst ( 80109 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:05AM (#24241631) Homepage

    We are letting a tiny, tiny minority of small minded psychopaths determine the technological evolution of the human race, simply because we are scared.

    This is the way it has been up to this point, on this old planet of ours.

  • by damburger ( 981828 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:09AM (#24241713)

    Yeah, but you can't blame windscale entirely on the scientists. There was a lot of political pressure on them to cut corners and produce enough plutonium for a British A-bomb, and then enough tritium for a British H-bomb. Some of the shit they did to meet those deadlines was insane, even for people who had built an air cooled graphite reactor that vented into the atmosphere. Had it not been for 'Cockroft's folly' Lancashire would probably be a dead zone.

    Its generally management and politicians who fuck things up. In such accidents there is always a dissenting voice beforehand saying 'hold on a minute...' and they are always dismissed for political reasons. It is made worse in the nuclear industry, because the culture of secrecy around nuclear technology breeds a lack of transparency.

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

    by damburger ( 981828 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:13AM (#24241785)
    Proliferation is a political issue not a technical issue. Its basically a position that first world nations should keep nuclear technology to themselves, and for me has always held a nasty undercurrent of racism, or at the very least 'white mans burden'
  • Re:We don't (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DShard ( 159067 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @10:40AM (#24242209)

    I can't agree more. People don't realize that we already have technology which can utilize 95% of what we consider nuclear waste to produce more electricity. Even better is what is left won't be dangerous after a few decades. The mentality behind this effort is simple FUD to keep us from creating more nuclear power. It's shameful neo-Ludditism.

  • by chrysrobyn ( 106763 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:04AM (#24242597)

    I've recently converted from being a nuclear enthusiast. Nuclear has many bad points (fewer than coal, make no mistake). These include that breeder reactors are "hard" (not perfected and political suicide for a long time for any politician who would otherwise support them) and reactors use a whole assload of water. Many municipalities that could use a nuke plant don't have the water on hand to generate the steam to run the turbines. Maybe we could research a closed system to recover the steam (heck, run a Rankine Cycle engine and get more power during the recovery?), but that's not current technology. Nuke plants are also insanely expensive to build, partially due to public paranoia (who can blame the plebes who can't tell the difference between an RBMK and a pebble bed reactor?).

    Wind and solar can cover a whole of our needs with lower risks. Thermal solar solutions don't even need any difficult to find materials and can be designed to make power for short cloudy periods and even at night. This will make grid power far less than 20 cents per KWh. Combine this with variable rate billing and some smart thermostats to take advantage of power when it's plentiful and their shortcomings become easier to swallow. Then if Eestor and some of the next gen capacitor and battery folks come through, they can help even out some of the transients too.

  • by jimicus ( 737525 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @11:29AM (#24243065)

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

    Assuming, of course, that nuclear fuel exists on their home planet.

  • by Eadwacer ( 722852 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @12:29PM (#24244013)
    Here's a link to extracts from one of the original studies: [].
    Beck mentions them, but only gives a trivial example.

    On the other hand, if I recall correctly, one of the local Native American tribes said something like: "You don't need signs. If people wander into the area 10K years from now, we will warn them for you."
  • WIPP (Score:2, Interesting)

    by sparkchaser ( 594964 ) <sparkchaser@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Friday July 18, 2008 @01:08PM (#24244559)
    The US DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant project wrote a report about this some years ago and it had some interesting ideas on how to warn future peoples away. Sadly, the document name and number aren't handy at the moment. []
  • by Dun Malg ( 230075 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @01:28PM (#24244845) Homepage

    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.

    And to top it all off, the mix of plutonium isotopes produced by a fuel reprocessing reactor is unusable as nuclear weapons fuel. Warheads require minimum 93% pure Pu-239, which is produced by short-cycling uranium in a certain configuration of fission reactor. It was completely unnecessary to put a blanket ban on breeder reactors, as all that was necessary was to ban a certain type of breeder reactor. 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. 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.

  • by chrysrobyn ( 106763 ) on Friday July 18, 2008 @01:46PM (#24245091)

    Finally, a Nuke guy who understands what he's talking about. Please understand that I don't think we can go 100% renewable inside of 25 or even 50 years, and please don't mistake me for someone who thinks that nuclear has no redeeming qualities. I pretty much favor anything that gets us off coal ASAP and oil as the next priority. Nuclear can be a big part of that, but I don't think it's necessary to count on nuclear in the >50 year time frame. Distributed infrastructure is a really smart way to go and catastrophic accidents happen, no matter how smart you think you are. If you accept that, and history [] seems to support [] it, the nuclear has the worst possible worst case scenarios -- any time you concentrate that much power in one place, the risks are high.

    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.

    Let's talk about the political will to walk into Nevada and clear through the back stock of nuclear waste and create viable fuel. They're hard and tricky, but not impossible. Politically speaking, they're death for anyone who proposes them.

    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.

    That's not going to cut it in any area that's going through a drought more than once a decade. With population growing as it is, we need more closed systems, and I don't see it happening; I have no idea why.

    2b. Coal power [] suffers [] from the same problem, normally using loads of water as well.

    You'll get nothing but agreement from me that coal is a terrible solution and causes more problems than any other solution. It's the cigarette of the power industry.

    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.

    If there's no research necessary, then why isn't it done? Why isn't it in place? Why do plants have to shut down in droughts? I'm betting there are solvable problems that nobody has gone to the effort of doing yet.

    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.

    All you need are some bored college students with greenpeace bumper stickers to put on a protest and get some time on the evening news to remind people about all the people who died in TMI (omit "0") and about the deadzone around Chernobyl to rile up the populace (omit the blossoming wildlife).

    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 surprise

  • Nuclear ignorance (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <`dadinportland' `at' `'> on Friday July 18, 2008 @03:07PM (#24246099) Homepage Journal

    10,000 years? here is an idea, use some of the modern nuclear techniques, that way it's only about 550 years.
    10,000 years my ass.

    However, to answer the question:
    Huge stone pyramids, with a marble coating, and a giant skull and cross bones on two sides, and the radioactive symbol on the other two.
    On the interior tunnel put the scientific symbols to indicate nuclear radiation, as well as a star chart of where the stars will be when 10,000 years is up.

Machines that have broken down will work perfectly when the repairman arrives.