Fwd: Bracing for Yucca Mountain's Nuclear Forever

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Sun May 26 2002 - 03:01:23 BST

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    Subject: Fwd: Bracing for Yucca Mountain's Nuclear Forever
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    While this story starts out without any seeming memetic prickles, what
    it is talking about is the inevitability of cultural flux and the issue
    of how to alert an alien to danger.

    - Wade


    Bracing for Yucca Mountain's Nuclear Forever
    by R.C. Baker


    In 1945, as the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico
    desert, one of its creators, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, recalled a
    line from Hindu scripture: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of
    worlds." This being America, though, someone smelled a profit behind
    this almost biblical source of power—nine years later, the Atomic Energy
    Act allowed private companies to build commercial nuclear reactors, with
    the promise of "energy too cheap to meter." But the bill for three
    generations' worth of nuclear power is now coming due. The Department of
    Energy is proposing to transport highly radioactive material from all
    over America to a nuclear waste dump inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
    Governor Kenny Guinn estimates construction of the facility will
    eventually cost more than $60 billion.

    He and most other Nevadans (with the exception of some local brothel
    owners, who predict a free-spending clientele among the army of workers
    expected at the site) are not happy that their state, already host to
    the radioactive leavings of decades of nuclear weapons tests, would
    receive 7 billion curies more. (By comparison, the accident at Three
    Mile Island released 15 curies.)

    In an interview, Steven Frishman, a geologist with Nevada's Nuclear
    Waste Task Force, talks about "downwinders," people who suffered deadly,
    long-term effects from the weapons testing, and how the federal
    government "knew it was dangerous and they weren't telling people." Now,
    he says, that same government, along with the nuclear industry, is
    "spinning the site," using "extraordinary levels of optimism and trying
    to convince people that it's safe because they have a political need to
    do it, not because it's actually a safe thing to be doing."

    The problem? The waste is so lethal that by law it must be completely
    isolated for a minimum of 10,000 years. But many scientists (including a
    panel from the National Academy) dismiss that time span as a
    bureaucratic convenience. Others point out that much of the waste
    (mostly spent fuel rods from commercial and military reactors) will
    contain uranium, plutonium, and myriad other "iums" that will be
    dangerous for upward of a million years. Nevada's concern is that the
    site is not sound enough geologically to keep the waste from eventually
    getting into the groundwater, food chain, and air. DOE's own best case
    shows no violation of current radiation dose standards for roughly
    100,000 years, but, as Governor Guinn's recent letter to Congress points
    out, DOE's computer models "have an uncertainty factor of 10,000."

    Still, the Yucca Mountain site is heading for a final, too-close-to-call
    vote in the Senate, and if it is approved, the maw of bureaucracy must
    be served. The Environmental Protection Agency has decreed that some
    kind of marker be erected to deter human beings from entering, drilling,
    digging, mining, or doing anything that would disturb the site or
    release its contents into the environment for the 10-millennium
    regulatory period.

    So artists, architects, and engineers must grapple with a time span at
    the outer limits of cultural imagination, a period that must take into
    account climatic change (will the brutal desert currently surrounding
    Yucca become wetter in a few thousand years?) and geology (there have
    been 600 earthquakes of 2.5 or greater magnitude in the area since
    1982). And then there is humanity: As Frederick Newmeyer, president of
    the Linguistic Society of America, points out, any language becomes
    "unintelligible to the descendants of the speakers after the passage of
    between 500 and 1000 years." (Read any Chaucer lately?) So how do we
    warn away people whose language, society, and beliefs we'll never know,
    who may have undergone revolutions, disasters, wars, or epidemics right
    out of The Stand?

    The challenge of communicating danger over vast reaches of time was
    taken up by an exhibition earlier this year at the University of Nevada,
    Las Vegas, entitled "Universal Warning Sign: Yucca Mountain." The
    organizer of the show, Joshua Abbey, wanted to use art to educate the
    public about the long-term hazards of the proposed dump. He received
    entries from around the world, many of which used the trefoil symbol for
    radiation, designed in 1946. But the meanings of symbols change
    drastically over time and from culture to culture. The swastika, long
    revered in many parts of the world as a symbol of good fortune, is
    metaphorically radioactive in others—it will get you jail time in

    The winning entry illuminates the problem of communicating tens,
    hundreds, and thousands of generations into the future. Ashok Sukumaran
    proposes to seed all of Yucca Mountain with self-replicating,
    genetically engineered, cobalt-blue cactuses, using this unnatural
    contrast against the ochre of the desert as a living warning. Clearly,
    though, this painted desert would be hauntingly beautiful and alluring,
    and might draw people rather than repel them. And there's the rub: Art
    and architecture act as our highest expressions of humanity, not as
    shouts of danger. Libby Lumpkin, the founding curator of the art
    collection in Steve Wynn's Bellagio Hotel, said one of the reasons she
    was interested in being a juror was "it was a show that no one could
    succeed at."

    Not that the government hasn't been on the case. The template for the
    eventual marker at Yucca Mountain was conceived in the early '90s for
    the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, the eternal
    (or so the DOE hopes) subterranean home of the detritus of the nuclear
    arms race. Among other things interred there are "contaminated
    laboratory piping, and booties and masks," says Michael Brill, an
    architectural theorist and professor at SUNY Buffalo. He led one of two
    teams of linguists, artists, engineers, archaeologists, and other
    experts, who were charged by Sandia National Laboratories to design a
    method of keeping future Indiana Joneses out of this real temple of
    doom. "Passive Institutional Controls," meaning monuments impervious to
    harsh climate and sandblasting winds, are mandated, because even the
    federal government has to acknowledge it might not be around in a few
    hundred years, never mind millennia hence.

    Right off, Brill's panel discussed leaving "great piles of this deadly
    shit above grade" so that anyone wandering near the site would become
    ill and die. The panel roundly rejected using corpses as "BEWARE" signs,
    however, due to inter-generational responsibilities: Our electric lights
    today shouldn't cause death or mutants tomorrow. So Brill's team
    concentrated on archetypal images of danger, things that are hardwired
    in all of us regardless of culture, and came up with massive,
    square-mile complexes such as Landscape of Thorns (50-foot-high concrete
    spires with sharp points jutting out at all angles), Forbidding Blocks
    (black, gargantuan, irregular cubes of stone, too narrowly spaced and
    hot to provide shelter), and other "menacing earthworks," all designed
    to convey "poisoned and parched and dead land, a place that's really no
    place." Anti-art, in other words. Buried granite chambers with warnings
    in the official languages of the UN were also planned, along with space
    to re-carve them in whatever languages evolve over deep time.

    DOE has opted for a cheaper design: a 33-foot-high earthen berm, half a
    mile square, studded by granite monoliths inscribed with warnings and
    pictograms of radiation danger. It has incorporated the experts' ideas
    for an information kiosk; high vantage points from which to survey the
    entire danger area; radar-reflective trihedrals; and small buried
    markers to warn against excavation or digging. Still, nothing will be
    built at the New Mexico waste plant until 2083, nor at Yucca Mountain
    until sometime in the 24th century. Transporting, storing, and finally
    sealing off such lethal material is a thorny, fraught process that we
    will not live to see completed.

    "Art is long; life is short," goes the old saying, but neither can cope
    with the insidious longevity of radiation. We can only hope our distant,
    unknowable descendants will understand that their ancestors crossed a
    line in this century— that our mummy's curse is not metaphorical or
    metaphysical, but very much the real thing.

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