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The million year problem – deep burial of nuclear wastes

Quite apart from the technological challenges and ethical issues these solutions present, both have one major drawback: to be successful they rely on external, uncontrollable factors. How could the knowledge required to interpret these things this be guaranteed to last?

Semiotician Thomas Sebeok recommended the creation of a so-called Atomic Priesthood. Members of the priesthood would preserve information about the waste repositories and hand it on to newly initiated members, ensuring a transfer of knowledge through the generations.

Buried nuclear waste stays dangerous for a million years — here’s how scientists plan to stop a future disaster 

In thousands of years’ time, will they even understand the language written on our ‘keep out’ signs? https://inews.co.uk/news/long-reads/buried-nuclear-waste-danger-underground-future-disasters-814704

By Helen Gordon, Monday, 14th October 2019  The red metal lift takes seven juddering minutes to travel nearly 500 metres down. Down, down through creamy limestone to reach a 160-million-year-old layer of clay.

Here, deep beneath the sleepy fields and quiet woods along the border of the Meuse and Haute-Marne departments in north-east France, the French National Radioactive Waste Management Agency (Andra) has built its underground research laboratory.

The laboratory’s tunnels are brightly lit but mostly deserted, the air dry and dusty and filled with the hum of a ventilation unit.

Blue and grey metal boxes house a series of ongoing experiments – measuring, for example, the corrosion rates of steel, the durability of concrete in contact with the clay. Using this information, Andra wants to build an immense network of tunnels here.

It plans to call this place Cigéo, and to fill it with dangerous radioactive waste. It is designed to be able to hold 80,000 cubic metres of material.

Long-term risks of nuclear waste

We are exposed to radiation every day. Public Health England estimates that in a typical year someone in the UK might receive an average dose of 2.7 millisieverts (mSv) from natural and artificial radiation sources. A transatlantic flight, for example, exposes you to 0.08 mSv; a dental X-ray to 0.005 mSv; 100 grams of Brazil nuts to 0.01 mSv.

High-level radioactive waste is different. It is, primarily, spent fuel from nuclear reactors or the residues resulting from reprocessing that fuel. This waste is so potent that it must be isolated from humans until its levels of radiation, which decrease over time, are no longer hazardous.

The timescale Andra is looking at is up to one million years. (To put this into some sort of context, a million years ago, the continent was in the middle of an Ice Age. Mammoths roamed the frozen landscape.)

The Achilles heel of nuclear power

Some scientists call this long-lived waste “the Achilles heel of nuclear power”. Currently, nuclear waste is stored above ground or near the surface, but within the industry this is not considered an acceptable long-term solution.

This kind of storage facility requires active monitoring. As well as regular refurbishment it must be protected from all kinds of hazards, including earthquakes, fires, floods and deliberate attacks by terrorists or enemy powers.

This not only places an unfair financial burden on our descendants, who may no longer even use nuclear power, but also assumes that in the future there will always be people with the knowledge and will to monitor the waste. On a million-year timescale this cannot be guaranteed.

Burying nuclear waste

So, after considering a range of options, governments and the nuclear industry have come to the view that deep geological repositories are the best long-term approach. Building one of these is an enormous task that comes with a host of complex safety concerns.

Finland has already begun construction of a geological repository (called Onkalo), and Sweden has begun the licensing process for its site. Andra expects to apply for its construction licence within the next two years.

If Cigéo goes into operation it will house both the high-level waste and what is known as intermediate-level long-lived waste – such as reactor components. Once the repository has reached capacity, in perhaps 150 years’ time, the access tunnels will be backfilled and sealed up. If all goes according to plan, no one will ever enter the repository again.

Protecting public health

For waste buried deep underground, the major threat to public health comes from water contamination. If radioactive material from the waste were to mix with flowing water, it would be able to move relatively swiftly through the bedrock and into the soil and large bodies of water such as lakes and rivers, finally entering the food chain via plants, fish and other animals.
To prevent this, an underground repository such as Cigéo will take great care to shield the waste it stores. Within its walls there will be metal or concrete containers to block the radiation, and liquid waste can be mixed into a molten glass paste that will harden around it to stop leakage.
To prevent this, an underground repository such as Cigéo will take great care to shield the waste it stores. Within its walls there will be metal or concrete containers to block the radiation, and liquid waste can be mixed into a molten glass paste that will harden around it to stop leakage.

Fast facts: UK nuclear waste

  • The UK’s nuclear waste is kept at 30 sites, but mainly at Sellafield in Cumbria. But the Government is searching for a “willing host community” in England to build a new £12bn geological disposal facility.
  • Here, enough highly radioactive waste to fill Wembley Stadium would be placed to decay over 10,000 years. Cumbria County Council rejected the idea in 2013.
  • In Scotland, a new nuclear store is being built at Dounreay on the north coast, to house intermediate-level waste in containers after it has been processed. It is due to be finished by the end of 2021.
  • Proposals to transport nuclear waste by road through Somerset from three power stations and store it at the Hinkley Point A were rejected by the county council last month.
  • Warning signs

    In 1980, the US Department of Energy created the Human Interference Task Force to investigate the problem of human intrusion into waste repositories. What was the best way to prevent people many thousands of years in the future from entering a repository and either coming into direct contact with the waste or damaging the repository, leading to environmental contamination?

  • Over the next 15 years a wide variety of experts were involved in this and subsequent projects, including materials scientists, anthropologists, architects, archaeologists, philosophers and semioticians – social scientists who study signs and symbols.

    Science fiction author Stanislaw Lem suggested growing plants with warning messages about the repository encoded in their DNA.

    Biologist Françoise Bastide and semiotician Paolo Fabbri developed what they called the “ray cat solution” – cats genetically altered to glow when in the presence of radiation.

  • A message to the future

    Quite apart from the technological challenges and ethical issues these solutions present, both have one major drawback: to be successful they rely on external, uncontrollable factors. How could the knowledge required to interpret these things this be guaranteed to last?

    Semiotician Thomas Sebeok recommended the creation of a so-called Atomic Priesthood. Members of the priesthood would preserve information about the waste repositories and hand it on to newly initiated members, ensuring a transfer of knowledge through the generations. But putting such knowledge, and therefore power, into the hands of one small, elite group of people is a high-risk strategy easily open to abuse.

  • Perhaps a better way to warn our descendants about the waste is to talk to them directly, in the form of a message.

    At Andra’s headquarters outside of Paris, Jean-Noël Dumont, head of Andra’s memory programme, shows me a box. Inside are two transparent discs, each around 20cm in diameter. “These are the sapphire discs,” he says. inside them information is engraved using platinum. They could last for nearly 2 million years – though one disc already has a crack in it, the result of a clumsy visitor on one of Andra’s open days.

  • The question of language

    In the very long term, though, these plans also have a major drawback: how can we know that anyone living one million years in the future will understand any of the languages spoken today?

    In the early 1990s, architectural theorist Michael Brill sought a way to side-step the issue of language. He imagined deterrent landscapes, “non-natural, ominous, and repulsive”, constructed of giant, menacing earthworks in the shape of jagged lightning bolts or other shapes that “suggest danger to the body… wounding forms, like thorns and spikes”.

    Anyone venturing further into the complex would then discover a series of standing stones with warning information about the radioactive waste written in seven different languages.

  • To help convey a sense of danger there would be carvings of human faces expressing horror and terror. One idea was to base them on Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
  • The drawback is that such a landscape – a strange, disturbing wonder – would probably attract rather than repel visitors. “We are adventurers. We are drawn to conquer forbidding environments,” says Florian Blanquer, a semiotician hired by Andra. “Think about Antarctica, Mount Everest.”
  • Preserving the memory

    In nearby Bure, a tiny village of around 90 inhabitants, Benoît Jaquet is the general secretary of CLIS, an organisation of local elected officials and environmental associations. Its purpose is to provide the local community with information about Cigéo, and monitor the work of Andra.

    If the repository is built, Jaquet says, French law requires that CLIS be transformed into a local commission that will last as long as the repository. “So it’s also a way to pass the baton,” he says. “If there is a local commission there is a memory.”

    At the same time, Andra has set up three regional memory groups, each composed of around 20 interested locals. They meet every six months and make their own suggestions for passing on the memory of the repository.

  • Ideas so far include collecting and preserving oral witness accounts and developing an annual remembrance ceremony to take place on the site. A kind of radioactive summer solstice, an atomic maypole.

    A part of the social fabric

    This last idea resonates with the work of Claudio Pescatore and Claire Mays, former employees of the Nuclear Energy Agency, a Paris-based body that supports intergovernmental cooperation on nuclear issues. They wrote in a research paper: “Do not hide these facilities; do not keep them apart, but make them A PART of the community… something that belongs to the local, social fabric.”

  • Across the road from CLIS and the town hall is a large, ramshackle stone house decorated with a banner. It translates: “Free zone of Bure: house of resistance against nuclear waste”. Since 2004, this has been home to a rotating group of international anti-nuclear, anti-repository protesters.

    By continually campaigning against Cigéo – and, presumably, by passing their beliefs on to future generations – the protesters would necessarily keep the memory of the repository alive. “So in fact the pro-repository groups need the anti-repository groups to stay alive in order to provide a good memory,” says Florian Blanquer.

  • The universal language

    Blanquer believes there is one sign that is truly universal: an image of a human figure. Pictographs based on an anthropomorphic figure in movement are likely to be recognised universally, he decided.

    But how can a pictograph relying on the visual representation of tangible objects convey a message about radioactivity – something that can be neither seen nor touched?

  • In response to these problems, Blanquer has designed what he calls a “praxeological device”. Independent of any verbal language, it works by teaching the person encountering it a brand-new communication system created specially for this purpose.

    Blanquer envisages a series of passages built underground, perhaps in the access tunnels of the repository. On the wall of the first passage is a rectangular pictograph showing a person walking along the passage and a line of footprints indicating the direction of movement.

  • At the end of the corridor is a hole and a ladder and three more pictographs. A circular pictograph shows a person holding on to the ladder; a triangular pictograph shows a person not holding on and consequently falling off. And so it continues.

    In this way you begin to establish patterns: you learn first that the figure drawn on the walls relates to a person’s actions here, and second that you should copy the actions in the circles and avoid the actions in the triangles.

    Hidden underground

    There has been one more radical proposal about how to deal with the threat of human intrusion – hide the repository completely from future generations. Some argue that because the repositories are passive systems, most likely buried far underground in areas with no deep natural resources, the question of memory preservation is moot.

  • Currently, no one can conceive of a reason why anyone in the future might want to dig down 490 metres to reach the clay formation that Cigéo is planned for. This reduces the chances of inadvertent intrusion. And after around, say, 100,000 years, almost all surface traces and any complex above-ground markers will have vanished.

    Far below the land

  • But just as we enter ancient burial chambers in search of answers, so archaeologists of the future may one day find themselves penetrating the concrete passageways and tunnels of the place we call Cigéo.

    Peering into the darkness they will ask themselves, who built this place and why? Why did they come here, digging down so far below the surface of the land? What were they running from, or trying to hide?

    In the light they carry, the archaeologists will see markings on the passage walls. Moving closer, they make out a series of footprints stretching away in front of them, down the passageway. In the looming darkness, it becomes clear – someone has left them a message.

  • This is an edited version of an article first published by Wellcome on Mosaic  and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence. Sign up to the newsletter at https://mosaicscience.com/newsletter

 

October 15, 2019 - Posted by | France, Reference, wastes

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