Blue Planet: Words that last forever

By DAN WHIPPLE, UPI Science News  |  Nov. 30, 2002 at 10:54 AM
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"An eye for an eye ... "

"To be or not to be, that is the question ... "

"Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation ... "

"Here's looking at you, kid!"

"I am not a crook."

Words, eloquent or profane, sometimes can burn themselves into the memory with such tenacity they cannot be removed. They become immortal within a culture, within history. Because we are primarily visual beings, images can carry even more power to attach themselves to our consciousness.

For the nuclear age, the enduring image is the mushroom cloud. With the atomic bomb came the hope of cheap, abundant and environmentally friendly nuclear power -- "power too cheap to meter," according to a once-popular catch phrase that somehow has turned out to be unenduring.

There are, at present, 430 nuclear reactors supplying 16 percent of the planet's electric power. In the United States, 104 licensed nuclear power plants produce about 20 percent of the nation's electricity, which far from being cheap, is expensive and unpopular, even with those who benefit from it. Fifty-five of those 104 licensed plants are more than 20 years old and 47 are between 10 and 19 years old.

Construction of new nukes was dealt a double death blow, first in March 1979 with the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, and again in April 1986 with the Chernobyl nuclear power station catastrophe in the former Soviet state of Ukraine. The industry's credibility -- not high even its heyday -- has never recovered.

In theory, nuclear power could offer some considerable environmental advantages. Early in its history, environmental groups embraced it as the clean fuel of the future. It contributes few emissions and no carbon dioxide to hasten global warming.

A pretty strong case can be made that nuclear power is a preferable environmental choice over coal, which now provides about half the nation's electricity. In his textbook, Energy, Gordon J. Aubrecht, a physics professor at Ohio State University, estimates that, each year, a single 1,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant causes 25 fatalities, 60,000 cases of respiratory disease and $12 million in property damage, as well emitting the oxides of nitrogen equivalent of 20,000 automobiles.

In contrast, according to Aubrecht, the estimated annual cost per person of the entire nuclear power cycle -- from uranium mining to power generation -- in terms of health risk and industrial accidents is about 10 cents. Instead of 60,000 cases of respiratory disease from a 1,000-megawatt coal plant, the same-sized nuclear plant can be expected to generate 0.158 cases of radiation cancer and no NOx.

Nonetheless, the nuclear industry's track record of haphazard performance, overblown promises and less-than-forthright public face has left potential customers extremely wary of further investments.

Yet the discipline of the marketplace is in one sense meaningless when it comes to nuclear power.

Using nuclear reactors means tapping the enormous energy reserves within heavy atoms to generate electricity. The process leaves behind some potent jetsam. Reactor waste is among the most dangerous substances known. It can remain fatally radioactive for more than 10,000 years -- for some of its components, millions of years.

In the United States alone, there are nearly 40,000 tons of nuclear waste sitting in temporary storage facilities. The unprecedented technical challenge is to keep those materials perfectly contained through their entire hazardous lifetimes. To borrow from Gene Kranz, the Apollo 13 mission flight director, a 99.99-percent success rate is not an option.

The Department of Energy's solution is to bury the waste in the ground beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The government hopes to have Yucca Mountain up and operating by 2010 and out of business with a final decommissioning about 100 years later. So, for 100 years, the government will be keeping watch over the facility. But what about the following 10,000 years? How do you keep people away for that long? Put up a sign?

In terms of human civilization, 10,000 years more than covers it. Writing appeared only about 6,000 years ago, around the same time that, according to the famous Biblical chronology drawn up by Bishop James Ussher in 1650, the world was created. According to Ussher, Creation occurred on the 23rd of October in 4004 B.C. So a Biblical creationist might expect the Yucca Mountain site to last 40 percent longer than the history of the Earth so far.

More likely, over the next 10,000 years civilization will experience ups and downs similar to the darker and more enlightened ages we've seen in the past 10,000. We assume our records will survive somehow, but if they don't, the responsible thing to do is figure out how to communicate to future generations the dangers buried at Yucca Mountain.

In 1984, linguist Thomas A. Sebeok was commissioned by the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation, and a group of other institutions, to tackle this problem. Sebeok found there was no solution, no permanent universal language that will say "Danger! Keep Out!" forever. Words and pictures depend on context, and over 10,000 years, context vanishes. Only a few generations after the last pharaoh, the knowledge of how to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics had disappeared. If it wasn't for the Rosetta Stone, we still might be trying to figure out what those symbols mean.

In "The Search for the Perfect Language," Umberto Eco wrote about Sebeok's findings: "Almost immediately, Sebeok discarded the possibility of any type of verbal communication, of electric signals as needing a constant power supply, of olfactory messages as being of brief duration, and of any sort of ideogram based on convention. Even a pictographic language seemed problematic. Sebeok analyzed an image from an ancient primitive culture where one can certainly recognize human figures, but it is hard to say what they are doing -- dancing, fighting, or hunting?"

Sebeok did suggest one possibity, but mostly it did public relations damage to the nuclear industry. He said maybe the U.S. could establish a committee that becomes an "atomic priesthood," passing down the information from one generation to the next, evolving with time into both a taboo reaching back into the immemorial past and a translation into contemporary terms with the passage of time.

The priesthood was never established. Yet the problem remains. Even if all 430 of the world's reactors shut down today, the waste will sit, still lacking an effective disposal technology. It goes on and on, outlasting language, civilization and technology, waiting for an opportunity to escape. Why do governments continue to permit further production of this material while this critical problem remains unsolved?

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