As I do some reading about geological repositories designed to last 10,000, 100,000 or even millions of years, I am struck by a certain insanity in the very proposition.
Let’s work in reverse on the smallest of those timeframes, 10,000 years. Ten thousand years ago or thereabouts, humans first started getting organised into something that would go on to be called civilisation. Successful agriculture was just taking off in the Fertile Crescent, which would enable sufficient production of food surpluses to support the gradual specialisation and division of labour that in turn supported the development of crafts, technology, science and politics.
I imagined asking those folks, who were busy learning about wheat and barley, to make a decision on our behalf.
I imagined saying “Make a decision in consideration of people living 10,000 years in the future. In this future, people can reach into their pocket, pull out a device and speak with someone, face to face, on the other side of the planet”.
What’s really drove it home for me was realising that before they could get interested in the device, they might first need to understand that they live on a planet. One that is round. With people living a long way away. So long away that it is night time there when it is daytime here. Consider also that this basic understanding only developed in the last 500 or so years, not 10,000. About 60 years ago electricity was produced from a controlled nuclear reaction. Currently we have a robot rolling around on Mars.
What arrogant insanity is driving us to imagine that we can make relevant plans for 10,000 years into the future? The context for even understanding thought in such a future is utterly beyond our ken. Worse, what insanity is forcing us to make that a priority above the real and present threats of the next hundred years?
For those less steeped in the topic, here is an example of what I am talking about, from a report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials:
In 1995, the NAS National Research Council panel recommended that the performance requirements extend out to the period of projected peak doses to the public “tens to hundreds of thousands of years or even farther into the future.” These peak doses would occur after the canisters and fuel had corroded through and the long-lived transuranics and fission products had migrated to and then through the aquifer and reached the water supply of the nearest down-stream population. In 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found that, since the 10,000-year standard was not in conformity with the findings of the National Research Council study, the EPA should reconsider the standard. The EPA did so and, in 2008, issued limits on radiation doses to the most exposed individual out to a million years.
The individual dose limits were set at 0.15 milliSieverts per year out to 10,000 years and 1 mSv/yr from then to 1 million years after disposal and were to be calculated from the average of the uncertainty range in the projections. These dose rates would today bring with them an estimated additional risk of cancer death on the order of about 0.1 and 0.5 percent respectively as a result of 70 years exposure.
To interpret that, the agreement, consensus and licencing of a facility to store spent nuclear fuel is being made contingent on establishing that the material will cause not more than a 0.5% increase in risk of cancer for someone living one million years from today, who happens to be exposed to it for 70 years straight. That assumption itself is based on the contended proposition that 1 mSV per year of additional radiation causes any harm whatsoever, considering in natural conditions, the background radiation can be just about anything from 2-200 mSV per year.
The principle of sustainability known as intergenerational equity is, in this case, being grossly abused and weighted far above the other equally important principles that must be considered together to make good decisions for sustainability. That is a process which inevitably leads to trade-offs, and that’s where we need to behave like grown-ups. The principles of sustainability have some variations, however the classics, as I learned them, have endured and they are (slightly re-written by me):
- The Precautionary Principle: Where there is risk of serious or irreversible harm, a lack of scientific certainty will not prevent the application of precautionary measures to protect against or prevent that harm
- Intergenerational Equity: The current generation has a responsibility to ensure conditions are protected or enhanced for future generations
- Intragenerational Equity: All of us sharing the planet deserve an equal opportunity for health, well-being and prosperity, and should not be subject to the harm of environmental degradation caused by others
- Internalisation of externalities: Where possible we will seek to internalise the environmental costs of our human systems in order to make better, fairer, wiser decisions
- Protection and enhancement of biodiversity and ecological integrity: Biological diversity and ecological integrity are essential components of our well being and must be protected and enhanced
It is striking just how exceptionally well the management of spent nuclear fuel either meets these criteria or makes a vital contribution as part of the nuclear fuel cycle to enabling us to meet the others.