Long term thinking and holes in the ground

(Interrupting the loosely connected thoughts of the last few posts…)  The meaning of long term seems reasonably clear – assuming you agree about the “long” part. Thinking is a bit harder (in all respects), but you kind of know what it is. But long-term thinking isn’t so readily taped.

This comes to mind with the news that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in the US is a casualty of Obama’s new budget. Well, it isn’t a waste depository, more a fantastically expensive excavation in which some waste might have been stored if the political system could ever have contrived agreement this was a good idea. What with Yucca, and the cancelled Supercollider (AKA the Ronald Reagan Center for High Energy Physics), future archaeologists will presumably conclude that the lost American civilisation dug enormous holes underground for inscrutable ritual purposes.


Yucca is (was?) a $9 billion engineering mega-project inside an extinct volcano in Nevada. It also crops up in reformed sinner Stewart Brand’s excellent new book (already mentioned here) in his discussion of the need to look again at nuclear power. I was struck when I reviewed it by his tale of a visit to the Yucca site – not to find out about nuclear waste storage, but to scope out the prospects for keeping the Long Now Foundation’s emblematic project, a 10,000 year clock, safe from everyday insults.

Brand found that as he travelled into the bowels of the Earth, it occurred to him that the whole enterprise was a bit mad – “nutty” he calls it. (A  similar feeling stole over me once on a visit to CERN, but that’s another story). Mad, not because it is daft to store nuclear waste, but because of the assumption that any storage has to be secure for thousands of years.

Although the Long Now Foundation is dedicated to promoting long term thinking, this isn’t what they had in mind. The point is not to lock in a solution supposed to last for all time, but to keep things adaptable. Even 100 years would probably be enough. By then we will either have better ways of dealing with radioactive materials, or be in such a state that we won’t much care, he reckons. Seems right to me.
So is Obama’s decision to cut off funding for Yucca a recognition that it is rooted in the wrong kind of long-term thinking? Sadly not. It seems to have more to do with local opposition to using the place for storing waste for any time at all. The bugbear of  “leaving a deadly legacy for future generations” seems set to be as much of a political problem for nuclear power as ever, even though it is now clear that the long-term consequences of coal plants are likely to be a lot worse…

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