“Eight years involved with the nuclear industry have taught me that when nothing can possibly go wrong and every avenue has been covered, then is the time to buy a house on the next continent”*…
The Yucca Mountain Waste Depository sits empty. Starting 1983, our electricity bills contained a tiny charge (a tenth of a penny per kilowatt-hour) meant to pay for the storage of nuclear waste until it’s safe– an estimated 10,000 years– at Yucca Mountain. In 2014, after collecting $30 billion, the Department of Energy stopped the fee. Five miles of tunnels—out of the intended 40—had already been carved into the rock, but there was no radioactive waste stored there. Having missed its planned opening date of January 31, 1998 by an embarrassing margin, the Obama administration in 2010 abandoned the languishing plans to build Yucca Mountain. Three-and-a-half years later, a court ruled the federal government couldn’t keep collecting fees for a site it had no intention of building.
That’s one way to see Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository’s continued nonexistence, as yet another political boondoggle: thirty billion dollars of taxpayer money collected to build a mythical mountain.
But Yucca Mountain is more than that. The ambition behind it far exceeds the two- or four- or even six-year terms of any politician. Here we were trying to build a structure that would last longer than the Great Pyramids of Egypt, longer than any man-made structure, longer than any language. When forced to adopt a long view of human existence—when looking back on today from 10,000 years into the future—it’s hard not to view Yucca Mountain in near-mythical terms. We can imagine future earthlings pondering it the way we ponder the Parthenon or Stonehenge today—massive structures imbued with an alien spirituality.
Ten thousand years may be the time scale of legends, but nuclear waste storage is a very real and practical problem for humans. It is a problem where incomprehensibly long time scales clash with human ones, where grand visions run up against forces utterly mundane and petty…
In 1981, the Department of Energy convened a task force on how to communicate with the future.
The panel of consulted experts included engineers, but also an archeologist, a linguist, and an expert in nonverbal communication. Dubbed the Human Interference Task Force, they were tasked with figuring out how to keep future humans away from a deep geological repository of nuclear waste—like Yucca Mountain…
* The late, lamented Terry Pratchett
As we reach for the kitty litter, we might send penetrating birthday greetings to Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen; he was born on this date in 1845. As a physicist working at the University of Würzburg in 1895, Röntgen became the first to discover– to produce and detect– electromagnetic radiation in the range we now know as x-ray (originally called “Röntgen ray”). Two weeks after his discovery, he became the first person to create an image with x-rays, when he took a “picture” of his wife Anna Bertha’s hand. For his discovery, Röntgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. And in 2004, element number 111 roentgenium (Rg) was named in his honor.