From Here To Eternity – Nuclear Waste & The Far-Flung Future
Fukushima has pushed nuclear reactor safety – rather understandably – into mainstream political debate once again. But strange as it may sound, reactor safety is not at the top of my list of nuclear concerns.
There’s been much less discussion on the longevity of nuclear waste. There’s been no real appreciation in the public mind of just how long-lasting (and long-lasting isn’t a strong enough phrase to explain what I’m talking about) committing to using nuclear power really is. And going into any depth on this starts to bring up questions and concepts – such as the legacy of humanity and the issue of our mortality as a species – that should be incorporated more firmly into the debate we have over whether to support nuclear power.
Many of us haven’t made up our minds, but from a different perspective away from the reactor safety debate, I’d recommend watching ‘Into Eternity’ by Danish director Micheal Madsen. ‘Into Eternity’ focuses on the efforts of the Finnish authorities to construct Onkalo (“Hiding Place” or “Cave”), an underground nuclear waste repository whose objective will be to store the country’s nuclear waste five kilometres under the surface of the earth. Their law requires that all nuclear waste produced in Finland is stored in Finland.
Construction will finish in the 22nd century, long after you and I are both dead. But much more startling than that is the fact that the waste will be hazardous to life for a hundred thousand years.
Those involved in Onkalo face the challenge of staring into the black, unpredictable abyss of the future. They must plan to shield the nuclear waste from the outside world for a period of time we cannot properly appreciate the enormity of.
The construction of the Pyramids. The birth of Christ. The rise and fall of countless empires. The sum total of all recorded human endeavour – is but a tiny fraction of the timescale that the waste will be dangerous for. It reveals a problem with nuclear power so vast in scale that it’s hard for us to comprehend.
In that time period, the only certainties are geological certainties. Ice ages will come and go. Humankind could be long-gone from the face of the earth.
Onkalo’s creators must discuss humanity’s mortality in a cold, calculating way. We fill up our lives with countless distractions to stop us thinking too much about our own individual mortality. Our collective mortality as a civilization – even as a species – is not often thought of. Onkalo must tackle the challenge of warning the far-flung future of the dangers buried inside. One expert confidently states that he personally believes that once Onkalo is sealed, it will never be discovered by humans.
The way they attempt to communicate the danger to beings unknown by using pictures, diagrams, different languages, is fairly reminiscent of the pictograms on the Pioneer spacecraft, the first manmade objects to leave the solar system, in case they should be found by extraterrestrial life. The nuclear tomb’s constructors are forced to try and second-guess the psychology and motivations of someone – or something – that they will never know and can’t even begin to imagine. How best to put across that what is stored there isn’t valuable, should never be discovered, and is dangerous? There are hieroglyphics of ancient civilisations just a few thousand years ago that we cannot understand in the present day. How can we communicate on a timescale immensely larger than that? And even if it was understood, would curiosity not override concern?
Back home, such discussions are in their infancy. The Department of Energy & Climate Change published a report on geological nuclear waste disposal sites a few weeks ago. The UK could have its first Onkalo by 2029. Finland has just four reactors. We have 19. The USA has 104. How many “hiding places” will we need?
Readers can draw their own conclusions on whether it’s economical for us to continue going down this path. Or whether it’s indeed safe. The scale of the challenge makes the apparent eagerness of some to have the material buried in their locales appear insane. I’m primarily thinking here of the mind-blowing idea of leaving behind something so toxic, so long-lasting, that it will surely outlast anything we can even imagine.
That is at least as terrifying as reactor safety concerns, if not more.
Into Eternity’s official trailer can be viewed here.
I am no apologist for the nuclear industry, and given the rather bumpy outlook for the next few decades (at least), then building more nuclear plants (effectively a bet that the country will be solvent and stable for at least the next century) is a very bad idea.
Nonetheless, I think that it is a significantly under-appreciated point that carbon, once moved out of its relatively secure long term storage as fossil fuels and into the active carbon cycle, has a similar life-span of climate altering effect as nuclear waste. And unlike nuclear waste, it will continue its harmful effects at all times, not only if it happens to be dug up from a hiding place. And unlike nuclear waste, its effect is global.
So while I think building new nuclear plants is a bad idea at the moment (and for the foreseeable future), I think that building new fossil fuel plans is even more ludicrous.
Thanks Jamie and Matt for your comments. I take your point Jamie about waste not being too high up your list of concerns; it’s not at the top of mine either, but rather I feel it’s not on a lot of people’s radars – especially when you consider the economics of having to construct that many geological burial sites for permanent disposal, all the while having to contain the waste for the interim in areas that have to be constantly cooled, temperature controlled, etc.
When we consider that places such as that in Finland could be the sole remaining evidence of human existence, you get an idea of the scale of time in which we’re talking about.
It’s my understanding that the radiation omitted from uranium in its natural state, or from uranium extration/mining, is much much less severe and of a different type to that which is omitted from spent nuclear fuel. The nuclear fission process changes the properties of the uranium, among other things making it much less stable, and causes much more harmful types and speeds of radiative decay. I won’t try and explain the specifics of what happens as I’m not entirely sure myself, but I’m pretty sure that’s the gist of it – Alasdair may well be able to fill in any blanks I’ve missed…
By the way, very thought provoking article. I’m personally in the George Monbiot field of thought on our use of nuclear power and energy consumption in general. I think the points you raise are very important to consider as they have such far reaching consequences, regardless of whether we’re pro or against nuclear fuel.
I am by no means an expert in physics, so I may be wrong about this, so someone might need to correct me (I’m looking at you, Alasdair).
There are many reasons thatI wou nuclear energy may not be the best answer to an ever growing hunger for power, but I would put waste quite far down the list (though it is on it).
The reason for this is simple. By creating nuclear waste we are not creating new radioactive material. It was already radioactive when it was dug out of the ground was uranium. By extracting power out of it we have changed it, but not given it any more energy. Quite the oposite in fact – we have taken energy out of it.
Lets look at the actual matter infolved. A tiny amount of it has been turned into energy as a result of the neuclear fission that gives us the power, and ssome of it has been fired off as alpha and beta waves, so there is slightly less of it than there was.
If the new material is more radio active than uranium then it will have a shorter half life. This meand that it will stop being dangerious much faster than it was to begin with. Conversly, if it has a longer half life then it will not be as radioactive, and will therefore not be as dangerous to life.
This is also assuming that in the next few hundred years mankind will not find a way of extracting energy from its nuclear waste, and start using it to power a second generation of power stations.
Having said all that, I’m not too happy having it kicking around.