Jack Delano Union Station January 1943
The waiting room of Union Station in Chicago
Why do we do it? Sure, we discount the future, and consensus is that's genetic, but it's not just our own future we discount. In fact it's not even the one we discount most: that would be our children's future. We don't just take what we need, we take all we can, and leave them with the consequences. After us the deluge. Even though love and protection for our children, and their children, is supposed to be at least as hard-wired into our genes as discounting the future is. Science even suggests that our main subconscious aim in life is simply to propagate our genes. Go forth, multiply and go away.
So, assuming this love for our children thing is valid, why is it that we burden the children we apparently love so much with these endless heaps of waste left over from our activities, many of which have nothing to do with our survival as such? At best it's a strange way of showing our love, at worst it looks more like the exact opposite of love. If mere survival was the goal, we could take it a lot easier, put on an extra sweater, walk to the store, that basic sort of thing, and build our communities to fit that kind of lifestyle.
We don't. We do the opposite. The more energy we have access to, the more we feel the urge to burn. And we produce children to help us do it, and raise them accordingly. There seems to be a pattern here. We make sure every next generation is even more dependent on burning even more energy, and less capable of doing without. Not because we don't understand this can only end in tears and blood and piles of corpses; we do. All the evidence says we simply can't help ourselves. So wearing that extra sweater is useless; we'd just come up with something like keeping it on in summer and jacking up the airco, so at least we can keep burning that oil and gas and electricity, in increasing amounts.
Still, not every human being and society seem to have done this all the time. For a long time, some Native (North) American peoples have at least in writing pledged to leave the earth in the best possible shape for the next 7 generations. Which might as well be 70, or 700 generations, since obviously the idea is not that everything blow up in the 8th generation. The Iroquois, or Six Nations (they call themselves Haudenosaunee), who live in Canada and the US northeast, have an ancient constitution, The Great Binding Law, in which is stated:
In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.
In the words of Onondaga (one of the Six Nations) faith keeper Oren Lyons:
"We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given us as chiefs, to make sure and to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come. . . ." "What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?"
And even shorter :
"In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation… even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine."
If we would be obliged by our laws, in every decision we make, to take into account what the consequences would be for coming generations, a lot of our decisions would be different from what they are now. So why don't we? Undoubtedly it's at least partly because, unlike our mainly patriarchal societies, among the Iroquois it's the women who take the most important decisions and have the final vote. They are a matrilineal society, which means the women are the "clan heads", and inheritance passes down from mother to daughter, not father to son.
That's not to say this is some sort of perfect model, the Iroquois are not perfect people and they are often infected by our modern lifestyles just as much as we are, but it IS a path to a different approach, and proof that people indeed can organize themselves in ways that, through benign social control, make it harder to pursue the scorched earth based lives we presently live, in which we seem to have no real consideration at all for what we leave behind for those who come after us while we are heading for a brick wall at 100 miles an hour thinking: "They'll think of something".
These things (re)surface when reading about the way Germany deals with its nuclear waste issues. Which automatically leads to the question how everyone else does it.
When it comes to "safe storage", whether it's temporary or permanent (however one defines that), there are geological issues (volcanic outbursts, tectonic shifts etc.) and there are more "earthly" issues (warfare, bankrupt and/or collapsing societies etc.). What all of the proposed "solutions" have in common is that they involve continued spending well into the future. No matter what your stance on the topic, it's clear that we will require future generations to spend certain, most likely huge, amounts of money, time and effort in dealing with the waste we have produced in order to support our lifestyles. Moreover, they will be required to be substantially smarter than we are. They will have to come up with answers to problems we've been unable to solve.
The story with nuclear energy and nuclear waste is the same as with the financial system and the excessive debt we will leave behind unless the heavens bestow us with miracle growth . Both involve moral judgments and decisions that we probably wouldn't have the moral right to make, if we would be obliged by law to consider the effects on our children. Plus, not to forget, the two are closely connected. This is true for more issues than nuclear waste or finance, of course – it's just as valid for CO2 emissions or any and all sorts of chemical pollution.
There are not only abstract moral, religious or philosophical issues to be addressed by us – here and now – . There are practical issues as well. Certainly given the levels of debt we're raking up and passing along, how can we guarantee that our grandchildren will have the means to continue to deal with our nuclear waste? It is really brutally simple. We can't. So what does that make the legacy we leave them with? To the proverbial neutral Martian, it might seems more like we aim to leave them behind with as much misery as we can conjure up for the next 7 generations, something in the order of Dante's nine circles of hell.
Here's the first of two Spiegel articles on Germans and their nuke waste conundrum. Remember, after Fukushima Berlin decided to get rid of all nukes, 6 of them right away. This one is from May 10:
When politicians put far too much pathos into their speeches, people should be on their guard — with a notable exception. There is one issue where no comparison is overinflated and no superlative appears exaggerated: Winfried Kretschmann, for instance — the governor of the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg and a member of Germany's Green Party — spoke of "theological timeframes" that now need to be decided upon.
His counterpart from Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), refers to a different time horizon for his actions: the Schöningen Spears, a number of 300,000-year-old Paleolithic hunting weapons that archaeologists found in his home state. And the co-floor leader of the Green Party in the German parliament, Jürgen Trittin, reminded his fellow politicians that this was about "finding a site for the most dangerous waste that mankind has ever produced."
The issue is nuclear waste and its safe disposal. Germany will have to build a storage facility deep underground that can survive the ravages of wars, revolutions and even another ice age. Indeed, the remains of the nuclear age will have to be kept in a final repository for 1 million years – longer than the human race has existed.
[..] What the representatives of the people would rather not talk about, though, is the decommissioning of Germany's nuclear power plants. They were once the cathedrals of industrial progress. But now their cooling towers and domes have become widely visible symbols of human folly.
German has a major nuclear waste problem. For almost 50 years, the former Asse II salt mine in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony has been used as an underground repository for nuclear and other harmful waste. Some 126,000 barrels of nuclear waste are in the massive mine complex. To make matters worse, the system of tunnels is in danger of collapsing. Photo: DPA
It's a monumental task that the Germans won't complete until 2080 "at the earliest," says nuclear expert Michael Sailer from the Öko-Institut, a non-profit research and consulting association for sustainable technology in Berlin. "After all, these are conservative estimates without any leeway for setbacks."
But it doesn't look as if things will go smoothly. On the contrary, the phasing out of nuclear power is accompanied by the agonizing challenge of decommissioning existing reactors: Eight nuclear power plants that were rapidly taken offline at the behest of the German government in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster have to be dismantled concurrently, followed by an additional nine facilities by the end of 2022.
There is still no roadmap for the decommissioning. To make matters worse, critics say that they see initial indications of eroding safety standards for decommissioning licenses as authorities struggle to cope with the mountains of nuclear waste. [..]
As if there weren't already enough outstanding problems, a new type of nuclear waste has emerged for which there is still no final destination: graphite waste and depleted uranium that can't be sent to the Konrad mining shaft. Instead, these materials that have been thoroughly contaminated with radionuclides will most likely have to be buried in a future final repository for highly radioactive waste. [..]
Germany's four main energy companies apparently see no problem, though, in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, at least that's the conclusion drawn by a reference study that they commissioned from an engineering company called NIS-Ingenieursgesellschaft. [..] The "decommissioning of Germany's light-water reactors" is "assured," they wrote, adding that the impact on people and the environment is "negligible." [..]
The engineers see the decommissioning timetable as a simple enough matter, at least in theory. First, the fuel rods have to cool off during what is known as the post-operational phase. Then there are two possibilities: Either decommissioning begins immediately or the reactor is mothballed. "Safe containment" is the name of the process by which the remainder of the reactor is left standing for up to 30 years until the radiation inside the building is further reduced.
But critics of Germany's nuclear industry are pushing for a quicker solution. They fear that the operating utility companies may be bankrupt before the power plants have been dismantled. Their concerns are not unfounded. After all, Germany's Energiewende – Germany's plan to phase out nuclear energy and massively increase its reliance on renewable sources — is eroding the business model of the former electricity monopolists. At the same time, energy giants such as E.on have billions in debts.
Take away points:
"a monumental task that the Germans won't complete until 2080 "at the earliest".
And that's just the decommissioning of the plants, before any of the waste has been stored. At the earliest 67 years from now. That's at least three generations into the future. More likely 5 or 6. If it ever gets completed, which is by no means guaranteed.
" … the remains of the nuclear age will have to be kept in a final repository for 1 million years".
An important timeline definition, a much debated issue. We’ll get back to that.
A great phrase, absolutely. Still, when you think about it: how many religions do you know that are a million years old?
Apart from the more general nuclear waste problems, Germany has some specific ones as well. From Der Spiegel again, this one 3 months ago. Makes you wonder how many situations like this exist elsewhere in the world:
It's hot and sticky 750 meters (2,500 feet) underground, and the air smells salty. Five men are standing in front of an oversized drill. They have donned orange overalls and are wearing bulky special shoes, yellow hard hats and safety glasses. They turn on the machine, and the rod assembly slowly eats its way into a gray wall.
For over seven months now, the team has been trying to drill a hole with a diameter of eight centimeters (three inches). They are attempting to reach one of the former excavation chambers of Asse II, an old salt and potash mine near the northern German town of Remlingen, in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony. Behind a barrier 20 meters thick, thousands of drums filled with nuclear waste have been rotting away for over three decades.
The drilling ultimately aims to provide a glimpse of the first of 13 chambers filled with barrels of waste, and to provide information on the condition of these containers — and on what measures need to be taken to remove them from the 100-year-old maze of tunnels.
The public rebelled in 2007 when the Munich-based German Research Center for Environmental Health (HMGU), the body then responsible for overseeing the site, decided to flood the tunnels with a magnesium chloride solution. Local residents were afraid that filling the cavities could allow radioactive substances to seep into the drinking water supply. The concern was that contaminated water could reach the Elbe River and spread as far as Hamburg. Pic: Der Spiegel
It took two years to prepare this journey into the contaminated salt. Engineers had to redevelop measuring devices, design new machines and write computer programs. The men on the drilling team have volunteered for the job. They are working in a hermetically sealed space. To prevent any radioactive dust particles from reaching the rest of the mine, a constant vacuum is maintained here. There is special vinyl flooring that can be decontaminated, and the walls are lined with custom-made tiles.
Germany cast itself into one of the most technically ambitious, and thus most costly, ventures of its industrial history — a bold, perhaps foolhardy, project that will consume at least €4 billion ($5.3 billion), but more likely somewhere between €5 billion and €10 billion. It's a decontamination project that will take 30 years, or longer. And no one can say with certainty whether it will ever be completed.
The initial stage has already revealed that the intended retrieval of the drums is an expedition into the unknown. The team has driven the drill pipe 35 meters into the salt, yet after a good seven months of work, they still haven't found the chamber with the stored radioactive waste. Geologists now believe that it has been missed by roughly 2.5 meters because the mountain has a life of its own and changes shape as the salt shifts from south to north.
[..] Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) [in 2010] estimated that it would take three years to prepare the project. Most recently, the BfS said it would need 10 years for the fact-finding phase alone. The BfS still has no detailed concept for the retrieval, no timetable, no script that maps out the technical procedures. It's essentially a flight by the seat of the pants, and problems are encountered for which no solutions have been found anywhere in the world. [..]
The public was originally informed that Asse was merely being used to "research" how radioactive waste reacts in a final repository. The public finally rebelled [..] in 2007, when the former operator of the storage site, the Munich-based German Research Center for Environmental Health (HMGU), decided to flood the tunnels with a magnesium chloride solution.
Citizens' initiatives were formed, internal papers were leaked, an investigative committee pored through thousands of binders — and it all resulted in the biggest environmental scandal in postwar German history. Now, all political parties firmly believe that the only acceptable message to local residents is the promise to retrieve the drums of radioactive waste.
[..] the debate will resurface with every additional delay, every cost overrun, every bit of geological bad news and every internal report that questions the project's chances of success or the logic of retrieving the nuclear waste. The people who live in Germany's northern Harz mountain range have grown edgy due to Asse's misuse as a nuclear waste repository, and they feel that they have been lied to and deceived. They also realize that many officials at the BfS, the Federal Environment Ministry and the licensing agencies think the retrieval project is absolutely insane.
[..] … special concrete is being pumped into the dilapidated tunnels. Indeed, in addition to having 126,000 drums filled with radioactive refuse, Asse's system of tunnels, which resembles the architecture of an anthill, is in danger of collapsing. "This is a totally ramshackle construction," says [mining engineer Jens Köhler].
For decades, the tunnels were allowed to fall into decay because the facility was about to be closed. In order to at least get some forewarning of an impending collapse, engineers have installed a micro-seismic system, the first of its kind anywhere. Twenty-eight monitoring stations register even the minutest tremors in the mine. Even a dropped hammer will be caught by the sensors.
[..] When it was decided to retrieve the 126,000 drums, the BfS made a video that demonstrated how easy the job would be: It showed how robots would collect the barrels, compress them or wrap them in foil, and then bring them up to the surface. The video claimed that the operation would be completed by 2025, at the latest.
Now, it's clear that it won't be possible to retrieve even a single drum during the current decade. The salvage operation will mainly require the construction of an additional system of tunnels — basically a new mine next to the old one — and this primarily presents a moral dilemma for environmentalists.
[..] The new mineshaft won't be operational before 2025. To make matters worse, there are still no plans for a packing facility or for an immense hangar in which up to 50,000 cubic meters (1.8 million cubic feet) of radioactive waste — and just as much contaminated salt — could be stored following retrieval.
[..] Back when the area was an isolated corner of West Germany, not far from the border with East Germany, many of the locals saw the research facility as their ticket to getting ahead. Asse offered jobs, growth and the promise of a brighter future. Children's birthdays could be celebrated with a guided underground tour of the mine, and the HMGU invited local politicians to Munich for Oktoberfest. And since nuclear waste doesn't stink, doesn't cloud the air and doesn't leave any visible traces, Dettmann says that they put any possible dangers "out of their minds" at the time.
It wasn't until someone attending a wedding talked about how water had rushed in and the mine was in danger of flooding that a group of local residents decided to inform themselves — and finally realized "that we had been taken for a ride here for 40 years," says Dettmann. [..]
Last year, one of the top people at the BfS quit the agency to work for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — and he left with a bang: Michael Siemann, the project manager for the retrieval, said on television that a safe retrieval of the waste was, in his opinion, unrealistic for technical reasons. "Many people know this, but no one wants to say it," he noted, out of fear of bad press and incurring the wrath of the public. The geochemist said that, in view of the decrepit condition of the tunnels and the lack of robotic technology, he felt that there was neither the time nor the means to safely bring the waste aboveground. But, he added, politicians don't want to hear this.
NOTE: at present the plan is to start moving the barrels around by 2036. A huge leaking disaster that nobody who presently holds a position of power will need to take responsibility for, because they will be long gone by the time the next deadline looms and is replaced by another one somewhere comfortably far enough into the future. Short term interests rule the decision making processes that involve long term problems. That's our political systems in a nutshell, we have nothing else, but it bites all the more harder in this case, and therefore shows much clearer where those systems inherently fail.
Which is for instance that unborn generations have no voice, and we, who are supposed to vote – and live – with their interests in mind, choose our own interests over theirs instead. Anytime you read that your government, or the UN, very strong in this, claims that something must be done by 2050 or so, you know you're being taken for a fool. But you'll buy it anyway, because you discount the future just as much as those who make such claims. Much easier, but it is what makes you that fool.
Let's address some of the inevitable more positive views on the nuclear topic. There are lots of people out there who will keep on claiming that there are options for nuclear out there that are not only clean, but that will solve the entire nuclear waste problem too, because they're based on re-using that waste. However, these options, be they (fast) breeding reactors or some other type, have one thing in common: there are none, or close to none, of them operational.
And you can argue about why that is, maybe it's cost (breeders are more expensive than conventional nuke plants), maybe it's a conspiracy driven by the existing nuclear industry, but the fact remains that many breeder projects were started up and the vast majority were suspended, many after not delivering any energy to speak of. Thorium has been around since at least the 1950's, but there's still not a single fully operational thorium reactor today. This doesn't mean that breeder and thorium don't hold any promise, it just means they're at best just that: promises.
Any new reactor based on these technologies will take at the very least a full decade to complete, and that is very positive way of looking at it. There is no guarantee any of them will ever come to fruition, which means none of the efforts to store waste can be halted just because they might solve any issues. Plus, obviously, their history doesn't speak in their favor. Can they produce clean energy? No, the 2nd law of thermodynamics says they can't. Can they produce cleaner energy? Perhaps, but that's by no means a given.
And the clock keeps on ticking, and time is running out. Moreover, breeders and thorium would have their own waste issues even if they were to live up to their promise – which they haven't for decades -. For now, they are a technocopian issue, not a realistic one. They're a science fiction promise on paper, and that's all they are. While the clock is ticking. And public opinion is against any form of nukes, period, which raises both cost and timeline. Is that what we want to leave our kids? A promise that so far hasn't stopped not giving?
Even if you don't have any doubts about the viability of "new generation" reactors, and there's ample reason to have them, the simple fact of the matter remains that time is running out for them. Even if breeders were feasible, they're not active. They have to be built form scratch, against a whole lot of odds, and every single one of them would make any project more expensive than all the optimistic estimates around. While money's running out. Or did you think it wasn't?
Before we go stateside, here's another European waste piece from Reuters, June 2012:
Finland has already started to build Onkalo, which is designed to take waste over a period of 100 years and then store it for at least 100,000 years, safe from population, fire, flood and other risks.
France plans a similar project in Bure in the country's east, [encapsulated in 150-million-year-old rock (that according to French geologists hasn’t moved around much in the last 20 million years] [The "subsurface" facility would be classed as a "very long term storage facility" (ETLD) rather than a final repository, since it is supposed to be "retrievable" – i.e. the waste can, at least in theory, be removed at a later date.]
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimated the total amount of discharged spent nuclear fuel to have risen to around 345,000 metric tons (380297 tons) in 2010, up 50% from a decade earlier. "Since radioactive material in storage will remain hazardous for many thousands of years, maintenance — or institutional control — would be required for such periods of time or until permanent disposal is implemented," the IAEA said in a report. In the past 1,000 years alone, an institution would have had to survive the fall of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, plague, scores of revolutions and dictatorships and two World Wars.
Environmentalists in Finland say it's unclear how secure Onkalo will be centuries from now, with the risks that climate and seismic shifts could allow waste to leak out and contaminate ground water. Reijo Sundell, president of Posiva which is the company building the site, said the bedrock is so solid it's likely to move as one piece in any geological shift and the spent nuclear fuel – encased in capsules of copper and cast iron and surrounded by buffers of bentonite clay – would remain intact. [..] "We are not saying that no capsules will ever break, but our standpoint is that even if some canisters break, radiation dosages on the ground cannot exceed the international limit of 0.1 millisievert," he said.
France plans to start storing waste underground from 2025 at Bure, in a remote and picturesque part of eastern France, chosen for its thick layers of argillite rock and low population density. Construction has not yet begun on the storage facility, and the French project is still subject to public debate. Work on the industrial site is due to start in 2017.
Officials at Andra, France's nuclear waste management agency, hope the €35 billion plan, if successful, will become a model for other countries and provide a business opportunity. "The French model is a real reference in the world, whether in large countries like the U.S., China and even Russia or in smaller countries," said Gerald Ouzounian, head of Andra's international division.
Japan is considered too earthquake-prone and densely populated to try underground disposal, and a loss of public trust over nuclear safety following the Fukushima accident has made it even more difficult than before to find a host site. But last year's earthquake and tsunami also raised awareness of the dangers of storing spent nuclear fuel in pools at reactor sites, currently common practice with many nuclear operators.
In Germany the prevailing notion is that storage can only be called safe if it's guaranteed for 1 million years. Finland talks about "at least 100,000 years". French engineers sound very confident about Bure, but the population is not so terribly convinced. There's also the fact that nuclear waste from other countries is being shipped to France to this day, leading to dangerous and much contested transports. Since Japan is deemed unsafe for any and all storage, it will need to export all its nuclear waste. But who's going to take it? Some poor country that may not be able to guarantee the same safety standards that the richer are discussing?
The US, which at present has its nuclear waste spread out over 79 temporary facilities across 34 states, spent some $15 billion since 1978 on the Yucca Mountain "deep geological repository nuclear waste storage facility" project in the Nevada desert (less than 100 miles from Las Vegas). Controversy was never far away, but it still took until 2004 for the US Court of Appeals, ruling on a series of lawsuits filed by the state of Nevada, to inject a sense of realism into the discussion. Why that first had to cost $15 billion is unclear. The EPA knew it was bound by law to follow recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences (which came in 1995), but instead stubbornly held on, till the end, to its own ideas.
Curious, because what the EPA was holding on to was a 10,000 years safety standard for a project involving materials with much longer half lives. Some examples: Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years, Technetium-99 220,000 years, Uranium-238 1 million years, Neptunium-237 2 million years, Iodine-129 15.7 million years.
Moreover, apparently Yucca Mountain sits on top of an aquifer, in the vicinity of 33 active earthquake faults and an active volcanic field; there are six craters within 20 kilometers of the site, the last of which formed by eruptions just 80,000 years ago. What's not to like, right?
Here's how Eureka County reports the Court of Appeals decision on its YuccaMountain.org site:
On July 9, 2004, the Court of Appeals ruled on Nevada's Yucca Mountain Lawsuits. The Court ruled that the EPA's 10,000-year safety standard on radiation containment at the site was arbitrary and inconsistent with the congressionally-mandated recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. The Court also struck down the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing standards insofar as they include a 10,000 year compliance limit.
The National Academy of Sciences said the radiation safety standard should be set at a higher limit, when the waste would be at its peak radiation levels – at least 300,000 years from the time the waste is sent to Yucca. The EPA was required by law to base its rule on NAS' recommendation, but chose to set the standard at 10,000 years instead.
DOE itself has expressed doubts in the past about being able to meet a longer time limit. As quoted by the Court, former project director Lake Barrett wrote in 1999 that a safety standard significantly longer than 10,000 years would be "unworkable and probably unimplementable."
And this is how the EPA itself put it in 2005:
On July 9, 2004, in response to a legal challenge by the State of Nevada and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated portions of our [EPAs] standards that addressed the period of time for which compliance must be demonstrated. The Court ruled that the time frame for regulatory compliance was not "based upon and consistent with" the findings and recommendations of the NAS and remanded those portions of the standards to us for revision.
a. What Were NAS's Findings (Conclusions) and Recommendations on the Issue of Compliance Period? As the Court noted, NAS stated that it had found no scientific basis for limiting the time period of the individual-risk standard to 10,000 years or any other value, and that ‘‘compliance assessment is feasible * * * on the time scale of the long-term stability of the fundamental geologic regime – a time scale that is on the order of 106 [10 million] years at Yucca Mountain." As a result, and given that "at least some potentially important exposures might not occur until after several hundred thousand years * * * we recommend that compliance assessment be conducted for the time when the greatest risk occurs" (NAS Report pp. 6– 7, ).
Samples from Idaho National Laboratory's Advanced Test Reactor (ATR) core will be sent to Argonne's ATLAS particle accelerator for analysis to learn the characteristics of the nuclear material. Powered up, the fuel plates can be seen glowing bright blue. The core is submerged in water for cooling. Photo by Matt Howard/Advanced Test Reactor core, Idaho National Laboratory/Wikimedia Commons
President Obama has since, also under strong pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who for years had made it his lifelong and signature goal to "kill" the project, declared Yucca Mountain dead. Funding stopped in 2010.
In May 2009, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said:
"Yucca Mountain as a repository is off the table. What we're going to be doing is saying, let's step back. We realize that we know a lot more today than we did 25 or 30 years ago. The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) is saying that the dry cask storage at current sites would be safe for many decades, so that gives us time to figure out what we should do for a long-term strategy.
We will be assembling a blue-ribbon panel to look at the issue. We're looking at reactors that have a high-energy neutron spectrum that can actually allow you to burn down the long-lived actinide waste. These are fast-neutron reactors. There's others: a resurgence of hybrid solutions of fusion fission where the fusion would impart not only energy, but again creates high-energy neutrons that can burn down the long-lived actinides. …
"Some of the waste is already vitrified. There is, in my mind, no economical reason why you would ever think of pulling it back into a potential fuel cycle. So one could well imagine – again, it depends on what the blue-ribbon panel says – one could well imagine that for a certain classification for a certain type of waste, you don't want to have access to it anymore, so that means you could use different sites than Yucca Mountain, such as salt domes. Once you put it in there, the salt oozes around it.
These are geologically stable for a 50 to 100 million year time scale. The trouble with those type of places for repositories is you don't have access to it anymore. But say for certain types of waste you don't want to have access to it anymore – that's good. It's a very natural containment. …whereas there would be other waste where you say it has some inherent value, let's keep it around for a hundred years, two hundred years, because there's a high likelihood we'll come back to it and want to recover that.
"So the real thing is, let's get some really wise heads together and figure out how you want to deal with the interim and long-term storage. Yucca was supposed to be everything to everybody, and I think, knowing what we know today, there's going to have to be several regional areas."
It's no major surprise that Chu talks like a technocopian. Whether it's a great idea for the future of America that people like him lead the discussion on these topics, and focus these on "solutions" such as the so far ever evasive fast breeders, remains to be seen. Chu suggests that "we" made a lot of progress ("we know a lot more today than we did 25 or 30 years ago"), but at least as far as safe storage is concerned, that definitely doesn't seem to be the case: in fact, no progress was made at all in the past 35 years.
Can Steven Chu 100% guarantee us that certain salt domes are stable for 50 to 100 million years? No, he can't. But he says it anyway. The least he could do is to admit that the best he can do is suggest a least worst option. He doesn't. Steven has religion. But that doesn't cut it.
And maybe it doesn't matter anymore. Chu left his post in April, and just this Thursday the Senate confirmed his successor, Ernest Moniz, who left his mark with for instance an article entitled Why We Still Need Nuclear Power, written for Foreign Affairs in 2011, which basically reads like a five page ad for nuclear energy. As for the waste issue, the new US Energy Secretary says:
[..] spent fuel should eventually be kept in dry casks at a small number of consolidated sites set up by the government where the fuel could stay for a century. At each site, the aging fuel would be monitored, so that any problems that arose could be addressed. The storage facilities would keep Washington's options open as the debate over whether spent fuel is waste or a resource works itself out.
In short: nuclear energy is great and clean and necessary, and as for its problems, "They will think of something". Like in a century from now?! We can't let our economy be hurt by pesky little problems that won't hurt us in our own lifetimes anyway. After us the deluge.
As for the blue-ribbon panel that Steven Chu mentioned, they issued their report in early 2012 (see brc.gov). The fact that it was co-chaired by octogenarian Washington stalwarts Lee Hamilton (D) and Brent Scowcroft (R) should give you an idea of where this was going from the beginning. The former Homeland Security advisor and the former National Security Advisor and Kissinger protégé sure made for a nice team. Of course the report starts out nice enough:
[..] this generation has a fundamental, ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe, permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating."
The fact that Hamilton was 80 and Scowcroft 86 years old when they wrote this makes one wonder what exactly they mean when they say "this generation". One thing's for sure: their own generation has utterly failed to comply with the "fundamental, ethical obligation" they talk about. Perhaps it would have been good for the two lifelong power brokers to recognize their own failure?
As a whole, the report, (judging from a summary), lacks any real meaning. In a nutshell, it does nothing but advise "the government" to find better ways to find and create storage facilities. What those ways would be, not a clue. You and I could have done the same, and we might not have needed a full two years to do it. By the way, the new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were also on the panel; just to confirm you know from which way the wind was blowing.
US nuclear policy is still in the same firm hands (albeit a next generation) it always was. That is to say: the nuclear industry. Nothing has changed in that respect, in spite of the disaster Yucca Mountain has turned in to. The Court of Appeals has been clear: the NAS has the decisive vote. It's likely that Washington will try to change that simple fact. What do scientists know anyway? New official government policy is to seek out a new singular, permanent site, with estimates placing a facility to be ready by about 2050.
Nuclear waste is an issue that no human being has been able to solve, period. And it's not for lack of trying, with often limitless budgets.
Japan has been scared away from nuclear power by what was in essence a pretty simple large wave, awfully tragic but not exactly out of the blue in that part of the world. Germany closes 6 nuke plants because of that wave and has no idea what to do with its waste, other than send it to France. Finland believes in its safe storage plans, but has no proof to show for it. France has a huge stake invested in its own repository, and – like Finland – claims it’s a model for the planet, but that too is still merely suspended in mid air.
In other words, nothing is sure about what we are going to do with the waste produced by our nuclear plants. Nothing. We know that deep burial is the only option, or we should say it seems to be, but at the same time it isn't, because there are no deep burial sites anywhere in the world that are actively taking in waste.
What is sure is that the waste is there, ever more of it as we go along our merry ways. There are ideas being thrown around, but they have been for a long time, and nothing has stuck so far. So it's really all nothing but a mighty big gamble we're taking. That's not just some opinion that can be countered with other, different opinions, it's a simple fact.
We sacrifice our children’s futures at the altar of our own petty conveniences. And that has us return to the question: Why do we do it? If we assume that we do indeed love our children, we must have gotten our wires pretty badly crossed at some point: this nuclear gamble we're making does not rhyme with that love. It certainly doesn't seem to be a gamble we make for our childrens' benefit: it's for ourselves only.
It looks like our primitive hard-wired propensity towards burning any and all accessible energy surpluses wins out over the less primitive and therefore perhaps less hard-wired love for our children. That may have consequences for any theory about how important propagating our genes is, or at least shift such a theory, but it seems obvious: we love ourselves more than we love our children. And that, simply as a cool cold observation, should perhaps make us think. Or have us admit to ourselves that we are not who we like to think we are. That our frontal lobes will never be able to overrule our reptilian brains.
Then again, The Great Binding Law of the Iroquois tells us of a notion that we can overcome our most basic instincts. There's something there that holds a promise for mankind. But it's a receding one. And it's not technocopia that will deliver us from nowhere. We will have to do that ourselves. No more nuclear waste until we are sure about what to do with it doesn't sound all that crazy.
There are simply problems we can't solve. Blind optimism (is that genetically hard-wired too?) that we will be able to solve them at some point in the future sounds real cute, but it also leads to the kind of dangerous wager made only by fools, or people who are not driven by conscious thought. Perhaps progress should mean making a next step in our evolution, where we recognize our propensity to destroy and not let it lead us all the way down. It's late in the day, though, and things don't look good.