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NUCLEAR GUARDIANSHIP FORUM, On The Responsible Care of Radioactive Materials,
Issue # 3, Spring 1994, pp. 3.

Nuclear waste, buried now in haste, will still be deadly in 12,001 A.D.


Review by Susan Garfield

So reads the cover of The New York Times Magazine, March 6 1994. Inside is a ten page article "Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds" which painstakingly analyzes various forces and follies that have influenced government policy-making on the disposal of radioactive materials. Author Kai Erikson, sociologist and professor of American Studies at Yale University is unequivocal. "Rushing to bury nuclear waste," he says, "doesn't take the problem off future Americans' hands so much as it takes the solution out of their hands."

The article's subtitle, dramatically highlighted page after page, "12,001 A.D.: Are You Listening?", draws the reader into deep time. Erikson emphasizes the deadly seriousness of our responsibility to the future and the necessity to intensify our search for viable solutions to the problem of radioactive waste containment. He makes it unmistakable that no such solutions exist at present. With discrimination and imagination he evokes possibilities (and uncertainties) of future times and conveys the tragic foolhardiness of not thinking more deeply about actions taken now.

The Nuclear Guardianship Forum lauds Kai Erikson and The New York Times for bringing this grave and complex issue into the mass media and greater public awareness. They have confirmed that nuclear guardianship is an idea whose time has come. 1994 A.D.: Are you Listening?

Excerpts follow from "Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds", adapted for The New York Times from Kai Erickson's book A New Species of Trouble, just published by W.W. Norton.

As the nation enters the second half-century of the nuclear age, it confronts the extraordinary challenge of deciding what to do with its nuclear waste. The most dangerous of these wastes have half-lives of 100,000 years or more, and they pose a hazard for a good deal longer than that. To call them spent, in fact, is almost to turn language on its head: the wastes need to be set aside not because their vigor is drained or their fever cooled but because these poisonous materials have become too irradiated for further use.

In most of the world, authorities are content to let the wastes cool for the time being on the surface...and in that frame of mind are awaiting the technology for permanent disposal sites.

The United States, however, is impatient to entomb those wastes once and for all, even though many experts say that there are no compelling technical reasons for doing so anytime soon...The nuclear industry and the Governmental agencies that oversee it hope that a crisp and decisive solution to the waste problem will help breathe new life into what is now a declining enterprise. [A number of states have] imposed a moratorium on the building of new reactors until a permanent method can be found to dispose of high-level waste.

A way needs to be found
to protect not only ourselves
from those furiously
radioactive materials
but the people of a distant future
whose way of life and cast of mind
we can know nothing about.

It is obvious that the decision to concentrate on Yucca Mountain [for waste entombment] did not issue from any serious comparative technical research. "What you are watching is an exercise in pure politics," said Al Swift, a member of the House of Representatives from Washington..."I am participating in a nonscientific process -- sticking it to Nevada." A future historian, moreover, looking back at our time, might very well go one step further and conclude that the decision to rely on deep geological entombment did not issue from a thorough scientific weighing of competing waste technologies, either.

...The Environmental Protection Agency has insisted on guarantees that such material will stay isolated from "the accessible environment" for 10,000 years -- held secure in canisters for 100 or more of those years and then, as the containers begin to degrade, by the geological formations in which they are entombed. [Editor's note: much of the wastes will be highly toxic for significantly longer than 10,000 years.] Somehow a way needs to be found to protect not only ourselves from those furiously radioactive materials but the people of a distant future whose way of life and cast of mind we can know nothing about.

The nation needs to find answers to two essential questions: Can the geological formations be counted on to remain stable for 10 millennia? And can human beings be counted on not to interfere?

What impacts are likely to result from the special risks involved in such a repository? This is unfamiliar conceptual terrain for the social sciences, if only because the time period under consideration is more than twice as long as the whole of recorded human history. Imagining...something so immense is like peering into a universe of darkness with a flashlight. Ten thousand years!

What if there is a leak into the biosphere at any moment in the ten millennia the repository is required by law to remain secure?

The words matter. Instead of [the Department of Energy] saying "any methodology that claims precision in the anticipation of repository consequences must be viewed with appropriate caution," how about declaring flatly that "any methodology that claims precision in that regard must be regarded as ridiculous?"

The Department of Energy, for the most part, has apparently assumed that the risks of human interference in the workings of a repository, whether intentional or unintentional, are so remote that they need not be taken into account...Human behavior is being set aside, really, because it is so hard to come to terms with -- so intractable, so difficult to discuss (as a Department of Energy report once put it) "in quantitative or probabilistic terms." It is difficult to predict what human beings will do a year hence, hard even to guess what they will do a decade hence, but preposterous to think that one can even begin to know what they will do a century or a millennium hence.

Ten thousand years ago, Stone Age hunters..., speaking a language that no one now could make out, were learning for the first time to plant seeds in the ground and to harvest the result. Can we use that span to measure how much change we might expect over the next 10,000 years? Clearly not, since the rate of technological innovation promises to be infinitely more rapid in years to come than it has been in years past.

We do not know, we cannot know,
and we dare not act
as though we do know.

The most mature and accurate scientific report we can issue...would conclude: We do not know, we cannot know and we dare not act as though we do know... Things will change drastically over the next few hundred years -- never mind the next few thousand...To think otherwise is unrealistic, unscientific and more than a little crazy.

[Burial] deliberately poisons a portion of the natural world for an endless stretch of time, and in doing so it not only leaves future generations with thousands of tons of the most dangerous rubbish imaginable on their hands but makes it as difficult as the state of our technology permits for them to deal with it. We cannot promise our own children -- never mind those who follow hundreds or thousands of years hence -- that they will be safe from the wastes. And so long as that is so, we are not taking the problem out of their hands so much as we are taking the solution out of their hands.

So perhaps the Government should relax its insistence on immediate and irreversible burial and turn to forms of storage that allow both continuous monitoring and retrieval.

Excerpted with permission from The New York Times adaptation from A New Species of Trouble, by Kai Erikson, W.W. Norton, 1994.

Susan Garfield, MFCC, an award winning documentary producer, director, writer for national television before becoming a psychotherapist, is serving as consultant on a documentary on radio-active waste for Connecticut Public Television.

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