Sunday, November 14, 2010

Really Long-Term Storage

A few years ago, Agnes and I discovered that the amount of stuff we'd accumulated over the years and didn't want to part with had exceeded the amount of storage space available in our house; therefore, I rented a commercial storage unit. Within a month, we decided that the unit I'd rented was too small (!) and we traded up to a larger unit. This unit has served us well thus far, although it sometimes seems a bit like Fibber McGee's closet.

I'm not the only one with a storage problem, though.

In our search for a source of safe and reliable energy, many people see nuclear power as the way to go. The only problem with this, of course, is that nuclear power generation results in nuclear waste which will be extraordinarily deadly for tens of thousands of years.

This does not strike me as being particularly safe but, hey, who listens to me?

I first took an interest in this issue from a linguistic perspective. Back in September of 2007, I wrote a post titled Don't Dig Here! that looked at the problem of how to communicate a warning message that would be understandable to someone receiving it many thousands of years in the future. After all, how many people today can understand the Shakespearean English of 400 years past, or the Middle English Chaucer used to write The Canterbury Tales some 700 years ago?

For the moment, though, the linguistic challenge is a moot point here in America, where we still have no permanent repository for highly radioactive nuclear waste. The Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada is no longer an option, and nobody seems to have come up with a better option. Except, perhaps, the Finns.

According to this fascinating article, the government of Finland has created "Onkalo", the world's first permanent nuclear waste repository, consisting of a vast system of underground bunkers and tunnels carved from solid rock in a three-mile long spiraling track that will reach an eventual depth of 500 meters (about 1600 feet). The facility is designed to last at least 100,000 years.

A question that arises in the long-term storage of nuclear waste is, "how long is long enough?" Some types of low-level waste may decay to the point of safety in a matter of months or a few years; others (the spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors, for instance) will be deadly for nearly geological time spans. While the Onkalo facility is designed to last 100,000 years, some experts believe that a million years is a more realistic time span.

Well, I won't be around to worry about it in 100,000 years, much less a million, so in principle I guess I really don't care. But I have children and grandchildren I love, and they'll have to deal with this problem a lot longer than I will. In the meantime, our desperate search for cheap and reliable energy will continue to bump up against environmental concerns that insist on absolute safety, aesthetic concerns that oppose things like gigantic wind turbine farms on otherwise pristine landscapes, and continuing desires for the latest in powered gadgetry.

Something will have to give somewhere. I wish I were smart enough to know where.

In the meantime, I'll be happy just to ponder the linguistic issues. I think it'll be easier to communicate into an unimaginable future than to make the compromises necessary to survive in the politically correct present.

Good luck.

Have a good day. Turn off a few lights. More thoughts tomorrow.



Bandit said...

I know your blog today is about storing (new-cue-ler) waste, but it reminded me of an old George Carlin routine about "STUFF." I'ts hilarious. All the places we have in our house to put stuff; this goes here, that goes there so we can keep our stuff organized. When we leave in the morning, we have to take certain stuff with us. Women have purses and men have wallets and pockets to carry stuff. When we go on vacation, we have luggage to take stuff with us.

On and on.

Mike said...

We haven't gone the storage unit route yet but we are on the brink.

KathyA said...

We throw a lot of 'stuff' out -- which leads to the question of landfills...It just doesn't end, does it?

Solar options are becoming more and more affordable each year. Something to consider...