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Week 6: The endless nuclear waste problem
In this issue: ▸ A new era for nuclear ▸ France’s bet on nuclear ▸ Toxic radioactive waste for 4,000 generations ▸ A warning sign for 100,000 years ▸ A radioactive cat ▸ And much more...
Shostakovich’s No2. VI. Waltz playing in the background. Winter is still holding its grip in the North. Cold winds playing football with snowflakes, mornings wrestling with the tired, yawning dawns. Occasionally, shy sunlight, gently tripping over windows. Silence. Forests that stretch for miles and miles, almost limitless. You can walk for hours without meeting anyone, feeling the healing power of nature, looking at the trees covered by snow. So many voices in the forest, despite that monumental silence that remains, humble.
No2. VI. Waltz is a playful piece with a lot of light, you can close your eyes and you just may end up in a ballroom dancing into the stars. This piece can be played both slow and fast, more melancholic as well as more grandiose. It depends on the mood. The same music can sound different to those in the audience, it depends.
It is all very much like the times we live in now. The same music can sound very different played now and played two years ago. That is the beauty of music. But the music played to us, the same audience as before, sounds more and more different. Is it the music that is changing or are we, the audience, growing deaf?
A new era for nuclear
The nuclear age is here. This time it’s here to stay for a very, very long time. In all corners of this planet, over the course of next 40 years, nuclear energy will most likely power all major megacities, all the factories that produce batteries, and most of the economic activity on this planet.
It will provide a dangerous but stable source of energy, with very low CO2 footprint. Investments and development of renewable sources of energy will continue for some time, but in a less hectic pace.
State subventions to develop nuclear energy will increase over the next 40 years and that will attract, as expected, a lot of private capital. The historical quest to decouple our unsustainable energy supply from our current economic model will now most likely see us betting on an energy source that today only stands for 10% of the total energy supply in the world. It looks like our last resort.
The current efforts to decrease emissions and decouple the economic model from destroying our planet have so far had marginal effects. Yes, we have quite dramatically increased the volumes of energy produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar, but it’s still not even close enough to what we need. The economic model we continue to subscribe to and operate each and every day remains the same. Growth, expansion, exploration, consumption. No compromises. We take what we can, what we feel like. We want things that we don’t need. That is the way of the world we live in.
France’s bet on nuclear
France is the world’s largest exporter of electricity and the world’s most committed nuclear nation, with 58 reactors producing 75 percent of the country’s power. As a result, it also produces enough toxic radioactive waste every year to fill 120 double-decker buses (about 13,000 cubic metres worth, or 2 kg a year for every French person).
The challenge is not only to build massive dumps for radioactive trash but also to guard them from human intervention for an impossible amount of time, more than 4,000 human generations. Let that number sink in.
Since France’s first nuclear power plant opened in 1956, the country has housed its high-level toxic waste in four short-term national surface facilities at La Hague in Normandy, Marcoule and Cadarache in the south and Valduc, north of Dijon. This was always seen as a stop-gap solution. The buildings have high security but were not designed to last more than a few decades, let alone keep the waste inaccessible for the 100,000 years and more that it will remain dangerous.
In the 1970s and 1980s, nuclear agencies in France and around the world toyed with the idea of firing the waste into space in a rocket or putting it deep in the ocean. Both were eventually rejected as too dangerous, with fears that a rocket could explode in the atmosphere and the radiation could leak into the ocean. The waste, which will be placed in a quarter of a million sealed containers slotted into horizontal tunnels more than 100m long, is the byproduct of burning uranium in the nuclear reactors and includes some of the most deadly and long-lasting radionuclides in the world.
Chlorine-36 has a half-life of 300,000 years and neptunium-237 a half-life of 2 million years. People do not often come into direct contact with such materials, aside from in a nuclear accident, but those that do meet a horrific end. In 1987, thieves in Brazil stole a source of high-level radiation from an old abandoned hospital. It was sold, its lead case broken open. After three days, four people who were handling it began to suffer internal bleeding in their limbs, eyes and digestive tracts, according to doctors. Then their hair fell out. Within weeks, they were dead.
Last week, president Macron announced that France will build at least six new nuclear reactors in the decades to come. He is essentially placing nuclear power at the heart of his country’s drive for carbon neutrality by 2050.
Toxic radioactive waste for the next 4,000 generations
In the 1990s, governments and scientists seemed to have converged on the idea of burying the radioactive waste in storage facilities designed to last forever. The waste would be sealed hundreds of metres below ground in geological formations of clay, rock salt and granite that have not moved for millions of years. Deep underground the disposal would, it was said, protect the waste from human interference, earthquakes or climate change.
Deep underground storage remains policymakers’ favoured solution.
The only site in the US is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in south-east New Mexico, a deep repository for the disposal of weapons-related radioactive waste, which opened in 1999. A site in Finland has already been approved by regulators. In Sweden, geological sites have been identified, and the Swedish government recently issued information about terminal nuclear waste storage for next 100,000 years!
Nuclear waste storage is a mind-bending task. About 100,000 years ago Europe was populated by a different species of human, Homo neanderthalensis. We know they had heavy, ape-like facial features, and used basic hunting tools, but we have no knowledge of the language they used.
We have no idea what will happen in the next hundred thousand years, and what kinds of societies will populate the planet, let alone how we might communicate with them. Will they even understand our language? A large part of the written Mayan language, used until the 17th century in Central America, is indecipherable to us today.
The nuclear agencies have two problems as they try to devise schemes that will win regulatory approval for deep geological repositories. The first is to design a site that can last forever, even as tectonic plates shift and a new ice age, which scientists expect to occur within 100,000 years, radically erodes the soil above. The nightmare scenario is that the radioactive elements will seep out into the groundwater, gradually, silently poisoning wildlife and humans. In Germany, the former salt mine Asse, where 126,000 drums of nuclear waste were buried in the 1970s, is already collapsing, forcing the authorities to dig up the dangerous material to place it elsewhere.
A warning sign that will last 100,000 years
We have a duty of care to warn future generations about what is there. How do you write a message that lasts thousands of years? What language do you use? What do you even say?
Nuclear agencies have a duty to try to prevent radioactive sites from being disturbed by future civilisations, who may decide to excavate an area in ignorance or even in the misguided hope of finding some kind of treasure buried underground. To this end, they are trying to find a way to communicate with the distant future, in order to warn its inhabitants about what will happen if they become too curious, and also to encourage them to look out for any technical problems at the site. This is not just a moral obligation. In the US, for example, there is a legal obligation to try to keep the “memory” of the site alive so that it can be managed “in perpetuity”.
The trefoil, the international warning symbol for radiation, three black blades on a yellow background, was created in 1946 and is still poorly understood. In 2007, after a five-year study across 11 countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency found that the symbol “has no intuitive meaning and little recognition beyond those educated in its significance”. Only 6 percent of those questioned in Kenya, India and Brazil knew what it meant.
A more complex sign, in red, showing waves radiating from the trefoil, a skull and crossbones and a figure running away, designed to be more intuitive, was introduced in 2007. But will this be understood as a symbol for danger for 100,000 years? More worryingly, will future civilisations heed the warning even if they do understand it? The challenge is not only to build a massive radioactive dump but to guard it from human intervention for an impossible amount of time.
The first attempts to answer this tricky question date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s in the U.S. Acknowledging the limits of pure scientists to solve the problem, the Department of Energy commissioned a group of sociologists, science-fiction writers, futurists and artists to help create a design for a long-term warning to place on top of the WIPP depository in New Mexico.
They came up with a series of recommendations. First, build a “message wall” in granite on top of the site and chisel a message – in seven languages, from Chinese to Navajo – into the slabs. The proposed message, a lengthy explication, was designed to instil fear into those who could understand it. Part of it reads:
“What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular location (…) it increases toward a center (…) the center of danger is here (…) of a particular size and shape, and below us.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.”
To mark or not to mark?
When you read the messages that we intend to communicate to our future cousins 100,000 years from now, you start wondering what is really going on right here, right now.
It was also suggested that a larger series of “markers” should be erected on the site, an imposing signal, beyond the written word, that would be “non-natural, ominous and repulsive” – in case our languages do not survive. A series of terrifying designs was proposed, one of which was to cover the entire ground surface with giant concrete spikes. The spikes and their shadows, it was thought, would always communicate danger. The contorted face of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream” was proposed for the warning signs that were to be scattered across the site.
While the Americans have been experimenting with designs that instil fear on a grand scale, the Scandinavian countries have taken a quieter approach. The deep geological repository at Onkalo, on the west coast of Finland, which will begin operations in 2023, is at the moment designed to leave no trace on the landscape. In the frozen tundra, so the thinking goes, far from any oil or precious minerals, what are the chances that anyone would choose to dig 400m underground?
“The idea is that the facility will be safe forever, even if the memory is lost,” says Kai Hämäläinen from the Finnish nuclear safety authority. “There is no requirement in the legislation for any kind of marker.”
Well, this approach, like the American one, has suffered a backlash. The argument has a fatal flaw. How can you make sure that people will forget the location? How do you guarantee that, generation after generation, knowledge of the site will not remain in the collective memory? Maybe after 1,000 years, people will remember that there is something down there, something not to be disturbed, something dangerous and forbidden, perhaps even valuable?
A glowing radioactive cat
Today, a fragile new consensus is evolving around the world. Under the umbrella of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris, 17 organisations from 13 countries came together in 2011 to form the RK&M initiative, or Preservation of Records, Knowledge and Memory across Generations. At a landmark conference in 2014 in Verdun, France, it was agreed there should be some form of marker for a nuclear waste site to warn future generations. On the marker should be basic information about what is buried, not just emotive messages to keep out, and this information should also be archived around the world to maximise the chance that it will not be forgotten.
But there is still no consensus at all on what should be written and what the markers should be. In fact, the fear is growing that there is no fool-proof way to speak to the future. The problem, according to Simon Wisbey of the UK’s Radioactive Waste Management Directorate (RWMD), is the realisation that there are no markers that will definitely last for even 10,000 years. None that are guaranteed not to be taken down by future civilisations, and no messages that we can confidently assume another civilisation will understand, however simple they might be.
A diagram of a man walking up to a barrel of radioactive waste and then falling sick, for example, could, if read backwards, be interpreted as a sick man going up to a barrel of waste and getting better, says Wisbey. “Even today many cultures read right to left. We cannot know how people might interpret such warnings in the distant future.”
One NEA study looked into the efficacy of Japanese tsunami stones, markers written more than 1,000 years ago warning future generations not to build houses close to the sea. The conclusion: although the function of the stones could be understood, their message was often ignored.
Some time ago in the 80’s philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri came up with the idea of the “Ray cat”, a genetically engineered cat that glows in proximity to radiation.
7 things to consider regarding nuclear energy
As you can tell, there are many questions related to nuclear waste that are still unanswered, and here are aspects we must consider in any discussion related to further expansion of nuclear energy:
There is no long-term storage solution
The future is unpredictable
It contaminates the environment
Persistent health effects
Hazardous waste cleanup
Reprocessing nuclear waste is harmful
If you want to read more about nuclear waste, here’s a list I’ve compiled:
That’s it for now. Have a great atomic week!