Like most people, I watched the events in Japan unfold on cable and through Facebook throughout the weekend. It’s great to see posts from friends and friends-of-friends who are okay. However, I watch other reports with growing fears for the people who live there. It’s heart-wrenching to see so much human drama, even as the hope of resiliency rises every day with new light.
Like the sunrise, chaos is inevitable. Japan is the obvious example of that. The worst earthquake in that country’s history, followed by an even more devastating tsunami, followed by a crisis at several of that country’s nuclear power plants. Chaos.
But chaos has a purpose — reminding us that our planning has limits. It’s a useful way to think about how we prepare for that inevitable surprise. We know we are vulnerable, too. I live near a super volcano, Yellowstone, that’s probably impossible to prepare for because when it erupts there won’t be much left where I live.
But not every disaster is inevitable; only chaos is that. I think the story from Japan ought to be a call to rethink what could happen because of our own folly. A case in point: Building a nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
Some 70,000 tons of nuclear fuel rods are stored at commercial plants around the country in temporary facilities. These were supposed to be transferred under a 1987 law to Yucca Mountain where they would be buried “permanently.” For a variety of reasons — political, legal and scientific — Yucca Mountain has remained off-line. The Obama administration has said the project is not worth doing and there is no money in the 2012 federal budget for the project. A couple of years ago the Timbisha Shoshone said they were unconvinced that the project was really over. “There’s always a chance it could be revived. As far as this project goes, it looks like it’s still moving ahead,” Chairman Joe Kennedy told the Las Vegas Review Journal.
Indeed, even now, some in Congress would revive Yucca Mountain as part of a deal to build new nuclear power plants.
This is crazy talk. Especially now. The repository is in a seismic zone with at least ten active faults in the area.
What is more, in order for Yucca Mountain to work as a permanent waste repository you have to believe that our current engineering and safety standards will be viable for 10,000 years. That’s a longer time frame than any structure in the history of humans. (The oldest building known to science was built about 6,500 years ago.)
A 10,000-year time horizon is the most arrogant of human enterprise, but it also ignores the probability of chaos. There will be an earthquake or something else that we didn’t expect. The Department of Energy (before pulling the plug) said as much. “The preliminary repository design includes a long-lived waste package and takes advantage of the desert environment and geologic features of Yucca Mountain. Together, the natural and engineered barriers can keep water away from the waste for thousands of years. Analyses of the preliminary design using mathematical models, though subject to uncertainties, indicate that public health and the environment can be protected,” a DOE report said. “For 10,000 years after the repository is closed, people living near Yucca Mountain are expected to receive little or no increase in radiation exposure.”
The phrase, “subject to uncertainties” is government-speak for chaos, or making a decision based on what we don't know. A decision that has to be perfect for 10,000 years, no less.
According to Scientific American, Japan is not our only nuclear wake-up call. “In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Waterford nuclear plant outside New Orleans was plunged into a blackout, reliant on backup generators to keep the reactor core and spent fuel on site cool. The issue didn’t make the news because it was a near miss, just as Three Mile Island notoriously missed being far more devastating by a few ticks,” wrote Rita J. King (a former journalist who covered the nuclear power industry).
King concludes: “... as the mysterious white plume rose over Fukushima, the distant possibility of old systems and natural disasters pairing up to show us again how short-sighted we are came into sharp focus.”
A sharp focuses that doesn’t include the inevitability of chaos.