Wednesday, February 18, 2004
A canticle for Yucca Mountain
BY MICHON MACKEDON
In 1957, a science fiction author named Walter M. Miller Jr. published "A Canticle for Leibowitz." The book is set in the New Mexican desert sometime ages and ages hence, in approximately 3000 A.D.
A band of monks has assumed the task of preserving the few words remaining from the 20th century, written in a language the monks call "Pre-deluge English." They are thought to contain sacred keys to the lost culture of the past, a time before "The Deluge, the Fallout, the plagues, the madness, and the confusion of tongues."
Brother Francis takes the preservation duty especially seriously and has copied the ancient words onto lambskin, creating beautiful illuminated manuscripts. The reader is eventually let in on a tragic, cosmic joke. The most highly prized holy relic has been transcribed from a torn piece of paper, on which was scribbled in the (ancient) text, "Pound pastrami. Can Kraut, six bagels - bring home for Emma."
I often think quite literally and specifically about those monks in the desert and their disconnected and fragmentary knowledge of past languages and culture, making connections between images from the book and Nevada's nuclear waste dilemma.
A few years back, the Department of Energy assembled a think tank at the Sandia Laboratory in New Mexico to consider communications issues related to warning others across eons of time about permanent radionuclide burial sites. The think tank included physicists, anthropologists and linguists. They were asked to consider ways of marking nuclear repositories with symbols or words which might, in their studied opinions, warn others about the buried waste in, say, the year 11,992 A.D.
The results were startlingly devoid of imagination and conviction. One team designed a Landscape of Thorns; another designed a Message Kiosk with warnings in seven languages, including English and Mescalero Apache; a third designed a Menacing Earthworks composed of 1,000-foot-long lightning-shaped earthen berms.
We might as well leave behind a scrap of paper with a shopping list.
The Sandia exercise provides just one example of the intricate relationship between the necessity to safely isolate nuclear wastes and time itself. Even in the Yucca Mountain cases recently argued by the state of Nevada in Washington, D.C., before the District of Columbia Federal Appeals Court, time emerged as the most interesting issue under debate.
One case was focused on the current Environmental Protection Agency standard for radiation releases at the proposed Yucca Mountain site. Nevada argued that the current EPA regulation is in violation of the law The regulation holds the DOE to designing a repository which will meet radioactive release standards for 10,000 years. Nevada, supported by data produced by National Academy of Science, has called for new regulations which will ensure that radiation releases meet the standard for 300,000 years, at which time the proposed repository (if it operates as designed) will release radionuclides in peak quantities, delivering what is called a "peak dose" to the surrounding populations.
If the court requires EPA to rewrite the regulation to account for 300,000 years of radiation release, Nevada's opposition to the repository will gain muscle, since the DOE has basically confessed that it is impossible to design and build canisters which will last beyond 10,000 years. The DOE reliance on canisters to store the waste underscores the fact that it has given up on the mountain itself to isolate the waste, an ironic reversal given the fact that the original nomination of Yucca Mountain was based on "strong evidence" that the mountain itself would provide a permanent and impervious waste barrier.
The strong evidence has since crumbled under intense investigation of the not-so-impervious properties of the mountain, leaving the DOE now asserting that manmade barriers will do the trick.
But the EPA rule raises other time-related issues that can't be settled in a court of appeals. For example, I question the very assumption that radiation releases from a proposed repository can be predicted over time, whether 10,000 years or 300,000 years, especially when considering that the computer models generating the predictions have been programmed not by gods but by mere men and women, some of whom maybe vested in the outcome of the program.
I question the assumption that we can predict the future, period. Earthquakes, volcanoes, deluges, cataclysmic social upheavals (the confusion of tongues) may - or may not - take place near the site. How can a computer model give us the confidence to stake our future on the "may not"?
So, what do we do as a state and as a nation? First, I recommend that we buy more of the word in question, that is time, rather than rely on the assumptions and predictions inherent in the Yucca Mountain plan. Let's leave the waste where it is for now, adopting a public policy supporting and funding the dry-cask storage method accepted by almost all concerned parties as safe for at least 100 years.
That (small amount of) time will most likely bring technological breakthroughs which will solve the problems rather then patching them with predictions. It seems to me that if we can litigate the issue of radioactive releases over 300,000 years, then we can certainly afford to take a little more time to study the problem further.
Michon Mackedon has served as vice chairwoman of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects since 1986 and as a Western Nevada Community College professor of English for over 2O years. She lives and teaches in Fallon.