Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Long Now and Why Nuclear Power is a Bad Idea (Maybe)

Oftentimes, it is a mystery to me why my brain goes off in a particular direction. I have written before, on this blog, about having read an interesting book entitled The Clock of the Long Now. Having read that book is the reason why I try to use a 5-digit year in writing dates (for example, 02008 instead of 2008). It's a technique for trying to train myself to think on a longer term time scale. To think in terms of millennia instead of decades or centuries. I haven't yet fully trained myself on the 5-digit years (which is why sometimes I'll post a blog entry that mentions a 4-digit year and then go back and edit it afterwards--and I suspect there are times when the 4-digit year has simply slipped past my notice).

Anyway, I've recently been thinking about nuclear power, but I've been thinking about it with that "long now" mindset. So, where previously I had mostly taken the view that nuclear power is actually a good idea (better for the environment than burning fossil fuels, for example), I've recently been thinking about how fundamentally bad an idea it is. Not because of the potential for nuclear accidents (such as Three Mile Island or Chernobyl). I think that in that sense, nuclear power is actually pretty safe. We've been powering submarines with nuclear fuel for decades and to the best of my knowledge, there's been no consequence in terms of life or limb--and surely there has been less damage to the oceans from all of those thousands of miles travelled in nuclear submarines than has been caused by more conventionally powered boats covering the same number of miles.

What's been on my mind about the hazards of nuclear fuel is just how long they take to degrade. If we assume that it takes nuclear fuel 10,000 years to become inert, think of just how long that is, in terms of human history.

Let's take a quick look back at what wasn't around 10,000 years ago.

10,000 years ago:

There was no Islam, no Christianity, no Judaism, no Buddhism, no Jainism, no Hinduism, no Taoism.

Zeus, Odin, Thor, Quetzalcoatl, and Ganesha had not yet been imagined, let alone risen to prominence and (in most cases) fallen from grace.

There was no religion that you've ever heard of. This is not to say that religion did not exist. Humankind has an extraordinary capacity for making up stories to explain the unexplainable (and the frightening). It is my belief that humankind's default instinct is to explain thunder (a large-scale scary phenomenon) by making up a god. If I'm right about that, then in its most basic form, religion probably predates just about anything else in the history of human thought. Doesn't mean it's sensible, just means it's old.

10,000 years ago:

There was no Rome, no Greece, no Egypt, no China, no Inca Empire, no Mayan culture. There were no Vikings or Mongols or Visigoths or Olmecs or Toltecs. 10,000 years ago predates every great civilization you've ever heard of (except perhaps for some imaginary ones).

While armed conflict between tribes has probably existed since before the fully modern human emerged, the oldest war you've ever heard of happened less than 10,000 years ago. (Again, excepting for fiction.)

While bullies and chieftains and kings have surely existed for as long as people have congregated in groups (and pack leaders are prominent in much less socially "advanced" species than our own), the oldest ruler you've ever heard of had not been born 10,000 years ago.

10,000 years ago:

The cow had not been domesticated. Sure, there was farming, but it was very primitive.

10,000 years ago predates the English language (modern English, Middle English, Old English). That long ago, there was no French, or Spanish, or Russian, or Basque, or Chinese, or Japanese, or Hindi, or Roman, or Greek, or Navajo, or Hebrew or Aramaic. You've never heard of any language as old as 10,000 years ago (except perhaps some imaginary ones--anybody know how long a time ago Huttese was supposed to exist in a galaxy far away?).

10,000 years ago, there was no Iliad or Odyssey. There was no Code of Hammurabi. There were no Bible, no Talmud, no hieroglyphics, no Sanskrit or cuneiform writing. The book had not been invented, nor had the scroll. Most likely, nothing resembling paper had been invented.

Not only was there no recorded music. There was no way of recording music. Musical notation had not been invented yet. I suspect it's probably fair to guess that people have been playing something akin to drums and bamboo flutes and maracas for at least a few tens of thousands of years. However, with the exception of those and similarly primitive examples, it's pretty safe to assume that almost every musical instrument you're familiar with has been invented in the last 10,000 years. Surely the guitar, piano, harpsichord, trumpet, violin, lute, serpent, tambourine, and cymbal are extremely new developments.

10,000 years ago, metalsmithing was likely not a widespread art. Stone knapping existed, and people made weapons. Hunting was a widespread practice.

Clothing existed, but probably not any clothing you'd be willing to wear in public.

The great pyramids of Egypt had not been built 10,000 years ago, nor had the ziggurats. The ruins of Catal Huyuk may be approaching 10,000 years old at this point.

And that brings me to the important word here: Ruins. There is no structure built by human hands that has remained intact for the last 10,000 years. The closer you get to that age, the more completely ruined are the fragments. I'm not saying that people that long ago were not inventive. I'm not saying that they were not clever or sophisticated or advanced (whatever that means). I'm not saying they were not industrious and capable of doing great things. I'm simply saying that 10,000 years is an extremely long time to expect anything to last. Societies rise and fall. Religions rise and fall. Buildings rise and fall.

What we know for sure about people from that long ago is basically what we can infer, simply from our own existence: 10,000 years ago, people were able to find food and eat it. They congregated in close enough proximity that they were able to find mates. They had sex and made babies and raised children. They migrated. In a nutshell, that's probably the majority of what we know, for certain, of human society 10,000 years ago.

What we know of human nature is probably as true today as it was then and it will probably remain just as true 10,000 years from now. What does that mean? For the purpose of this train of thought, it means this: people are inquisitive and imaginative. That alone is enough to establish the danger of trying to store nuclear waste anywhere.

It is hubris to believe that the USA (or any other current nation) will still exist in 10,000 years. It is extremely unlikely that anyone will still use any language that is currently spoken. At best, there will probably be just a few experts who can decipher any of our languages in any meaningful way.

In the intervening centuries, surely there will be periods of increasing war and increasing peace. Surely there will be periods of increasing tribalism and increasing unity.

It's reasonable to expect that archaeology will to some extent go in and out of fashion. But surely, as long as people continue to exist, people will be digging and exploring.

Where on Earth humankind will migrate is anybody's guess. Historically, societies have tended to rise in areas with easy access to water. However, there's no telling how influential our current and future technologies will be in changing that trend.

The end result of that is that there's no place on the planet that we can be sure won't be explored. Which means that you can't simply "hide" your nuclear waste and reasonably hope that it won't be discovered and cause harm.

And you can't simply put up a sign saying "DANGER" and hope it will be heeded. Going back to the death of languages and the pattern of birth and death of religions and beliefs, it's absurd to believe that a sign, no matter how carefully and strongly worded, will be heeded. In fact, it's probably the case that the more warning you post and the more effort you put into making your stash inaccessible, the more effort will be taken in the future to get at it. Human nature means that the more difficult you make it to get at a treasure, the more valuable the treasure will become in the minds of future generations. Even if they understand the warnings, they may think those warnings to be pure hyperbole. It's possible that people in 2,000 years will doubt our ability to create nuclear power just as much as we doubt the ancient Egyptians to have done so.

If someone today digs up a chest of doubloons (and you know that people are searching), nobody is harmed. If someone in the future digs up a mountain full of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel, the downside is potentially pretty disastrous.

So what's the solution?

I have no idea. Ethically, our policy makers should probably be thinking about such things. I wonder whether they do.

I guess that we could simply take the short view: that our responsibility is limited to the few dozen generations that are likely to still have any philosophical or emotional or intellectual connection at all to us. If we take that view, then yes, we can reasonably think that we have the power to protect our descendants. But if we take the long view, that becomes an increasingly absurd idea.

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