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?

EPILOGUE

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):

  1. 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
  2. Intergenerational Equity: The current generation has a responsibility to ensure conditions are protected or enhanced for future generations
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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.

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26 comments

  1. I think an each way bet is called for in future scenario planning. Surviving the next 20 years is going to be difficult enough with climate change, peaking of affordable oil and gas, population ageing and the underclass wanting cars and flush toilets. We should avoid thinking in terms of implausible scenarios.

    Case in point I wondered if future people might cause mischief with dry cask storage of used nuclear fuel as shown here, essentially protected by a tennis court
    http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/WR-Reviving-Yucca-Mountain-1911137.html
    It’s a problem if the future people share elements of both Mad Max and Happy Days. They’d need vehicles and power tools to wreak havoc with dry casks. But that scenario is not plausible as we’ll either cohere as a society ruled by law or go back to living in huts, not half and half. It’s as if the choice was between going out for pizza or attacking a nuclear storage facility. I don’t see it.

  2. Talk about fiddling while Rome (our planet burns). Any simple risk assessment shows that the most urgent priority is the transition to non fossil carbon fuel technology as quickly as possible.
    The recently released IPCC AR5 Report is a stark reminder that the continued use of fossil carbon fuel to generate our energy requirements under the RCP 8.5 scenario will have severe consequences, not only for human civilisation but also the human species. Under this scenario if fossil fuel is used throughout this century, CO2 concentrations will be above 900ppm and rising by 2100.
    Paleoclimate history shows that the last time CO2 concentrations were 900ppm was about 55 million years ago during the PETM event, also an extinction event. Mean global temperatures were 12 degrees C higher and sea levels 60 metres higher at this time.
    Paleoclimate history also teaches us that 9 of the 10 main extinction events were started by massive volcanic activity releasing CO2 into the atmosphere at rates orders of magnitude slower than human activity is doing today. See
    http://climatestate.com/2013/09/21/our-future-in-a-world-without-ice-caps-peter-ward/
    Burning fossil fuel is thus significantly higher risk than nuclear energy generation.
    It is therefore very urgent that bipartisan agreement is reached by all governments to construct say 20,000 nuclear reactors over the next 40 years to replace all existing fossil carbon energy production. Preferably IFRs, as these also disposes of nuclear waste.
    This initiative would give the world a chance to meet the RCP 2.6 scenario, which is the complete transition to non carbon energy by 2100. This will still give CO2 concentrations of about 450 ppm and falling, but a much more manageable outcome for human civilisation.
    Paleoclimate history shows that the last time CO2 concentrations were 400 ppm was about 5 million years ago during the early Pliocene. Mean global temperatures were 3 degrees C higher and sea levels 15 metres higher during this period so adaptation by human civilisation will still be difficult.

    1. You got me… I was actually looking to make a larger point about the accelerating rate of change in human conditions and knowledge, and was more referring to Copernican thought as a particular milestone. However… no question I was using flat earth as part of the example. I really enjoyed that link and it corrected a misconception I was holding. Thanks!

  3. Some big time periods that are also kind of trippy are the times taken to accumulate fossil fuels in the ground accompanied by a high O2, low CO2 atmosphere. I think of h. sapiens as fleas that have jumped on the back of a healthy dog, bred like crazy and are now making the dog sick. We’ve had a billion years of photosynthesis (blue green algae) oxygenating the atmosphere. In the last quarter billion or more years we’ve had more complex carbon converters making coal, oil and gas. Then in the last 200 years h. saps has come along dug up and burned that carbon like it would last forever. No wonder things aren’t looking good..

    1. More succinctly that’s
      1 bn years to create a breathable atmosphere
      0.3 bn years to create fossil fuels
      0.0000002 bn years to burn most of the fossil fuels.

  4. This is exactly the reason why 10,000+ years is referenced. It’s nearly impossible to plan for, thus any plan is moot. It is the reason why those against Nuclear like to push this issue. Happy with storage, BUT it has to be for an entire half-life and some.

    However we are quite happy in SA to ban a centralised repository in some of the most stable rock in the world and keep it under the RAH and Adelaide Uni. You can even have an office across the corridor from one in Adelaide Uni.

    Loony times we live in. Give an idiot a soapbox…

    That aside from a recent visit to the UN; I never new Thatcher in 1989 did this at the UN General Assembly, 33 minutes of a call to act on Climate Change and the Environment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnAzoDtwCBg

  5. The trouble I have with concerns about geological repositories is more about forgetting about all the other things we are doing that are much more likely to still have an impact 10 000 years from now.
    How long does it take for all the carbon we released to be absorbed and for the likely climate impact to be inverted ? But also the massive landfill we are creating now will stay a very, very long time, and will be both attractive because of the metals inside (all the concentrated and easily accessible ore deposits likely being exhausted by then), and also full of toxic materials that can poison people if not properly handled.
    How could possibly nuclear waste storage than will be a needle in a haystack, very deep underground, where the gamma emitters will be gone quickly leaving only alpha radiation as a significant hazard, become a significant concern compared to all the rest of the pollution we are generating ? Why should be concerned that the solution might possibly not be perfectly fool proof, when we are doing nothing to make all the rest safe for that long or even for a much shorter timescale ?

  6. You are exactly right. This is part of the myth of nuclear waste management. Talking about 10,000 or 100,000 or even 1 million years is nothing but a scare tactic by those opposed to nuclear power. It is taking an attribute of nuclear waste, that it decays away over time, that is actually a positive; and turns it into a negative. Pretty much all other toxic waste created in the world – and there is plenty – is toxic forever, yet we don’t talk about having to safely store it for 100,000 years. What we do in these other industries is talk about safe disposal.

    With the speed of technology evolution looking out a few hundred years is impossible, never mind thousands. The Canadian model for long term waste management is an interesting approach. It is called Adaptive Phased Management and in summary allows for future generations to take decisions based on what is good at the time. If interested you can read about it here http://www.mwmo.ca.

    As for today, we need more nuclear power to meet the real challenges facing mankind such as climate change and the need to provide economic clean reliable and abundant electricity to fuel society. My thoughts on this year’s World Energy Outlook are here. http://bit.ly/1eQBc4e

    1. I have taken note of the Canadian model. The name “Adaptive Phased Management” is perfect for how this should be approached. I suspect reality will push more nations in the direction of this type of model. The success of dry cask in the US is clearly influencing decision making there too. It would be really beneficial if there could be an official change in position from the IAEA to take the emphasis of the sci-fi storage, as it is a clear constraint on uptake of nuclear which, as most of us have come to appreciate, simply manifests as a clear run for coal and gas.

  7. It’s a real crazy worry unless one’s concerned that some awfully clueless superhuman fool in the far future is going to accidentially trip over a tiny volume of waste two thousand feet deep in a pinpoint spot on a global map and decide on building condos down there…

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    1. What would be even more crazy were if an awfully clueless organization named the World Bank just right now had already strongly subsidized the installation of a massive amount of tube wells going 30 to 300 feet deep, and accidentally tripped over a very large volume of diffuse arsenic resulting in the arsenic poisoning of a whole country, dozen of millions of its inhabitants. No, nobody can imagine both that it’d be true, but also that most of the world would basically not care.

      Bulletin of the World Health Organization : “Arsenic in tube well water in Bangladesh: health and economic impacts and implications for arsenic mitigation” http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/90/11/11-101253/en/index.html

  8. By the end of 2016 SA will have lost its iconic car manufacturing industry while gas, the fuel used to generate 44% of the state’s electricity will have doubled in price. They say if you’ve got it use it. Since SA has an extraordinary amount of uranium I suggest going into multiple aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, not only uranium mining but enrichment and power generation. As to nuclear storage some might find it poetically satisfying that the waste is kept not far from where some of the original ore was mined, completing the loop so to speak.

    The jobs created could absorb skilled workers facing layoff as well as replacing high priced gas.

  9. Salt mined on land — “halite” — very likely originally *was* sea salt. But it differs subtly; or so one might gather from food advertising that makes a point of mentioning the use of sea salt.

    Therefore I think spent nuclear fuel in a geological context can be accurately likened to halite that over the years annihilates itself. If some other food, whose use was alternative to the use of salt, were very much more lucrative for government, we would have similar alarms over the leakage of kitchen salt into the sea.

    These alarms would dwell on the centuries-long persistence of kitchen salt in the sea. (Recall, we’ve had to add a self-cancelling tendency to make the analogy closer.) They would not dwell, as an honest discussion would, on the smallness of the man-added salt burden in the sea compared to its natural inventory. There might be images of sodium chloride contamination plumes from the Titanic based on calculated leakage.

    *Deliberate* salting of the ocean would be forbidden, and discussed only in terms of depositing very secure *containers* on the bottom, with marker buoys to warn our distant descendants not to tamper with the containers, lest they unleash another *Titanic*-style marine halification disaster.

    Since land is much more naturally radioactive than sea, the analogous practice to sea burial of spent halite is land burial of man-made radioactivity. True, we have made less long-lived radioactivity than there is in the sea, but where “long-lived” means lifetime of five or more years, only about one order of magnitude less. For land burial a few hundred metres deep the order-of-magnitude difference is about three.

  10. Evidently not done with Fukushima ‘our’ ABC (that costs each of us 10c per day) is now pushing the horrors of the Maralinga A-bomb tests
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-12-10/maralinga-veteran-says-government-is-just-waiting/5147730
    The veteran interviewed is still going strong nearly 60 years later. His colleagues that fell by the wayside may also have been smokers and heavy meat eaters. Note the studio backdrop of cooling towers and cordoning tape with radiation symbols. In other words A-bombs = nuclear electricity = danger.

    An oddity is that another site for post WW2 British A-bombs was the Monte Bello Islands off WA, now one of the last safe refuges for the endangered hawksbill turtle. It gets weirder because oil and gas was subsequently found out that way and back in the SA outback the large Olympic Dam deposit was discovered a decade later. Almost like the bombs were a magic wand.

    1. My reading of the issues paper is that NP gets a look in where coal and gas aren’t available, not necessarily to reduce emissions. The paper is schizophrenic because in places it says go for broke on coal (eg exporting Vic brown coal) and in other places it talks low carbon like CCS. A bizarre scenario is max coal mining with some token NP. A bit like an abattoir with a work experience vegetarian. Maybe it’s too crazy to take seriously.

      1. I’m not sure it’s crazy this last option. If you don’t care about emission at all, it can still make sense to edge your bets by having a little nuclear so that if you start to have problem and are not able to max out coal anymore, you have an alternative solution that is more easily accessible from having already developed a bit of it.

  11. My problem with the political system is that both sides have their own mythology; one side says there nothing is wrong with coal and the other says wind and solar will save us. I can’t see nuclear being cheap enough anytime soon absent carbon pricing or looming shortages like east coast gas. However if Abbott hangs on until 2016 it would be nice to have an in-principle decision before then. Since Direct Action seems likely to be a shambles perhaps a pro-nuclear decision could be a face saver for Abbott. The Greens will be hysterical but.

      1. The map in this ‘infomercial’ by Origin Energy
        http://www.originenergy.com.au/4231/National-Electricity-Market
        shows that Olympic Dam is the western edge of NEM except for Eyre Peninsula and unless I’m colour blind it is connected to Pt Augusta by a 275 kv line. The lower capacity line that heads due north from Pt A must end at Leigh Ck coalfield. I guess it will work like this; electric shovels dig up coal and the coal is burned to power both the uranium and the coal mine. I guess solar wasn’t up to the job. Coal must be our friend.

        1. G’day John,
          A new company,SANE Pty Ltd [guess what SANE stands for]has just been formed. On the strength of my 16 year long study of the world nuclear power generating industry and of the nuclear fuel cycle in general, they have contacted me for information. It appears that they have plans for nuclear SA very similar to the ones I’ve been promoting for the past 10 years. I’ll be meeting with their board mid-January. It’s taken 16 years John but at last someone is actually DOING something instead of just talking about nuclear power etc for SA and Australia.It’s been a long, lonely battle but I’m very encouraged by this development.

          Cheers

          Terry

  12. Yesterday SA’s ‘energy revolution’ (the words of the Mines Minister) must have been put to the test when it was 49.6C at Moomba gas field. I guess a tad more gas was diverted to the generators to power the aircons in the buildings. I’ve previously said the Habanero dry rock geothermal experiment is nearby. In fact that pilot plant and Australia’s first commercial fracked gas well Moomba #191 are just 54 km apart in the vastness of the outback. The tight gas bearing shale overlays the granite basement rock and acts as a trap for radioactive decay heat.

    The link says the froth/steam from the geothermal well is 215C so if the air temp was 50C then ΔT is not very good for efficiency purposes . Good thing it was shut down yesterday. There should be more of these energy revolutions.

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