The Fukushima nuclear disaster that is ongoing in Japan as a result of the devastating earthquake and the massive Tsunami has now been reassessed and the severity leve is now raised from level 5 to level 7, the same as Chernobyl. This means it is not just an accident, but the worst case scenario with massiv impact on environment and people on a long term scale.
Long term in this case is really a different matter. Talking nuclear material is blowing all human timescales with numbers beyond anything comprehensible. As the New York Time has put it in a recent story: "The death of a nuclear reactor has a beginning; the world is watching this unfold now on the coast of Japan. But it doesn’t have an end."
Image taken from socio-economics history, source www.digitalglobe.com / The Fukushima nuclear power plant after the earthquake and tsunami.
The use of nuclear technology around the world has been for the past 70 years and is ongoingly generating nuclear wast for which no real solution has been found as of yet. The wast is continuing to be active and dangerous even as wast and so far simply the only solution is to store the was safely. The problem is the time scale at which a safe storage will need to be found. It is not for a hundred years, not for a thousand years, not ten thousand years, actually no one really knows how long it would need to be. Some say twenty five thousand, that would be the half live of some of the radioactive materials, but it is likely to be a lot longer, Plutonium-239's half-life is at 24,000 years. Some of the radioactive materials have a half-life of more than 100'000 years. This means a wast storage solution would need to be safe for this amazingly long period.
This brings planning problems with it that are far beyond anything human kind has been challenged with. One of these problems is a practical one that illustrated the dimensions very nicely. How to make sure the storage is known about and safe for the duration of it being there? How to marke the location in a way that people in ten thousand years still can understan they should not be digging in this area because the nuclear waste is still extremely dangerous? This brings very simple questions with it, for example what language do people speak in ten thousand years, or in fifty thousand years? Or maybe what signs would they understand if we don't know about the language?
Image taken from wikipedia, source www.digitalglobe.com / One of the very old site and structures dating very, very far back, the Acropolis in the city of Athens. Here in a painting by Leo von Klenze "Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens" (1846).
In comparison cities are about 4000-7000 years old. Some of the very old elements of London are for example about 2000 years old. The oldest cities data back to about 7000 years to the times of the very first permanent settlements. Urban structures have evolved and increased in size, but planning is dramatically short termed in this over all context. Some infrastructures are amongst the long standing elements, like the Roman viaducts for water delivery and of course the longest standing elements are the elements relating to traditions, rites and practices. As of which elements the very fundamental concept of permanent settlement actually rests.
Taking this back to the question of how we can possibly manage to maintain the safety for hundreds of generations from the radioactive waste, it becomes clear how far beyond everything we know this goes. Its not that we have a memory as far back as the earliest cities, but at least this we have a conceptual history for the past 7000 years. However, this is about it, this far in the past a lot of things are pretty blurred and unclear. But what we need here for the radioactive mountain of waste is going a lot further into the future than that. So we better have a pretty good solution, it really is a timeframe more appropriate for mythology.
Image taken from wikipedia, source www.digitalglobe.com / Schematic plan of the WIPP facility with a system of underground tunnels.
The United States of America have in recent years made a move towards a more permanent storage solution. plans for a storage facility in the Yucca Mountain has been put on ice, but the nuclear wast is currently delivered to a Waste Isolation Pilot Plant WIPP, located approximately 26 miles (42 km) east of Carlsbad, New Mexico, in eastern Eddy County, for longterm storage. It is mainly for radioactive wast from the production and testing of nuclear weapons. The project planners do claim the site is safe for at least 10'000 years and have received the official confirmation to run it. Even though this is likely to be not long enough it is a hell of a lot of time.
A film documentary by Peter Galison, Pellegrino University Professor of the History of Science and of Physics, and Robb Moss, who teaches filmmaking in the Visual and Environmental Studies department, is soon to be coming out about this project with very fascinating background information about this US storage project and how the problems were approached.
They have decided on some form of granite pillars to mark the site with some plates describing the danger plu s the dissemination of the information to libraries world wide in order to increase the chance of the information to survive. However this part of the project is not to be placed on site before 2028, so plenty of time to redesign. A call for ideas was run earlier by the 'Zeitschrift für Semiotik' in 1982/83 and several ideas were proposed. Including nuclear priesthood, programable DNA or the genetically modified cats that can actually change colour upon coming near radiation.
I guess the call on this is still open and it will remain a challenge to deal with the wast we are producing in many sense but definitely here it is opening dimensions we are incapable of handling using traditional planning tools.