Nuclear waste disposal requires millennial planning

Hirohito Ohno

The late U.S. semiotics researcher Thomas Sebeok (1920-2001) was a professor at Indiana University when he proposed the establishment of an “atomic priesthood” in a report he submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy in 1984.

The problem Sebeok was asked by the department to address was this: How do we warn future generations of the extreme danger of highly radioactive nuclear waste buried deep in underground storage sites? Should someone dig up the waste at a later date, unaware of the danger, the consequences would be catastrophic to society. This isn’t your garden-variety industrial waste. It is expected to remain toxic for 10,000 years, or 300 generations. That is a mind-boggling span of time. Reverse the clock, and the human race was in the Stone Age 10,000 years ago.

Fast-forward to 10 millennia from now, and the languages we are using today will likely have been greatly transformed, if not rendered obsolete. There is no guarantee that even pictures will convey their intended meanings. Signs and symbols are fully understood only in their contemporary socio-cultural context. What they mean will become increasingly ambiguous with each generational shift.

The atomic priesthood Sebeok proposed would be a self-perpetuating community, which would employ a “folkloric relay system” to keep its message alive for millennia to come.

Japan’s “atomic village” of bureaucrats and nuclear experts has been busy spreading its “safety myth,” making people believe their argument that nuclear power generation is safe. The mission of the “atomic priesthood,” on the other hand, is to perpetuate its “lore of danger.” I think a religious organization like the one proposed by Sebeok might be fit for the long-term mission by placing a taboo on the waste burial site.

I once reported on a primary school that had to be relocated to escape the effects of radiation. No, the school wasn’t in Fukushima Prefecture. It was in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne in France.

A radium extraction plant was built in this commune in the early 20th century, apparently with the support of Pierre and Marie Curie, co-discovers of radium.

The school in question was built in 1969. About 20 years later, it made news headlines when radiation was detected there. Faculty members, who spent long hours on the premises, were believed to have been exposed to an estimated 14.5 millisieverts of radiation per year. Work was done to remove residual radiation from the premises, but the removal proved to be only partial, and could never fully allay the concerns of parents.

This is not the only example of the “legacy” of France’s pioneering radiology research becoming a major headache for the nation. Until the outbreak of World War II, France was mass-producing goods that contained radium, touting them as fruits of its advanced science. The goods ranged from medical equipment to cosmetics, toothpaste, coffee makers, timepieces and even baby clothes.

Today, many of these products are believed to be lying around in old homes, forgotten among common household junk. A French government official in charge of locating such items explained, “They emit only low-level radiation, but if you stay near them for a few hours, you will be irradiated with a dose that easily exceeds the safe annual level.”

Yoshihira Doi, 70, an environmental activist in the city of Tottori, noted: “In promoting nuclear energy, little attention is paid to what happens afterwards.”

Following the discovery of a uranium ore deposit in the Ningyo-toge pass along the border of Tottori and Okayama prefectures, uranium mining began in 1956. But the low grade of the uranium made the operation unprofitable, and the operators pulled out in the mid-1960s. In 1988, however, radiation was detected in the huge mounds of excavated earth abandoned around the old mine.

The mounds formed low hills, already overgrown with weeds and shrubs, and Doi and a group of local residents launched a petition for their removal. But it was not until 18 years later that the mounds were finally removed after repeated negotiations and lawsuits with the former Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation (present-day Japan Atomic Energy Agency) and the prefectures and municipalities concerned.

“Forget, ignore, lose or procrastinate” seems to be the way of radiation management in Japan as well as France. This is with cases that are only a few decades old, not 10,000 years.

Speaking from his experience as an activist, Doi scoffed, “If you think anyone can keep nuclear waste in safe storage, welcome to the world of sci-fi fantasy.” Doi pointed out technical challenges as well as problems inherent in society. Over the centuries to come, there will be political upheavals, there may be wars, and almost all companies currently in existence will disappear.

“Then who’s left to take responsibility? Even those mounds of dirt (from the uranium mine) took years to clear away,” Doi said. “You can imagine just how herculean a task it will be to dispose of all the rubble in the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and scrap the crippled reactors.”

Radiation works to its own time schedule, while we humans muddle through and repeat our mistakes on our time. I can see how increasingly difficult it will get to “synchronize” those two time frames.

In 2009, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of the United States indicated its decision to think not only 10,000 years ahead, but 1 million years ahead, with respect to the estimated radiation level from a permanent high-radiation nuclear waste disposal facility being planned in Nevada. Reverse the clock again, and our planet of 1 million years ago was inhabited by the Pithecanthropus Erectus ape men.

If we can rely on anything to enable us to properly manage radioactive materials, perhaps it is not so much scientific or social progress as our evolution into a species that can build a stable and safe society.

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Hirohito Ohno is the Op-Ed Section editor of The Asahi Shimbun.



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