Thursday, July 17, 2008

What Becomes a Morlock Most?

eloimorlocks-02 A fascinating article in the Guardian by sociology professor Ulrich Beck points up an interesting tidbit about the future risk of Yucca Mountain (or any used fuel repository) far into the future. That is, how do you do you tell people of the far future that there might be danger?

The anthropologists recommended the symbol of the skull and crossbones. However, a historian reminded the commission that the skull and crossbones symbolised resurrection for the alchemists, and a psychologist conducted an experiment with three-year-olds: if the symbol was affixed to a bottle they anxiously shouted "poison!", but if it was placed on a wall they enthusiastically yelled "pirates!".

The commission mentioned here was appointed by President Bush to explore this issue. The notion of pointing forward 10,000 years and assuming that Yucca Mountain’s purpose will not be well enough understood by people then is of course in the realm of science fiction.

While it certainly could be true that Eloi and Morlocks will inherit the remnants of civilization and not understand any of it, it seems more likely that civilization will move along the path it has been on since the notion of civilization crossed some ancient synapses. But really, we could say anything about this and be proved wrong by a giant meteor or the Andromeda Strain or any scenario that one could dream up. The world of the future is a fiction written into truth as it happens.

Professor Beck’s larger point is that the risks associated with climate change have overawed the risks of nuclear energy, though we’d argue that the nuclear renaissance picked up steam well before climate change became a cultural given and that the risk of nuclear energy was always about nine parts perceptual to one part real.

Seen in this light, the actors who are supposed to be the guarantors of security and rationality - the state, science and industry - are engaged in a highly ambivalent game. They are no longer trustees but suspects, no longer managers of risks but also sources of risks. For they are urging the population to climb into an aircraft for which a landing strip has not yet been built.

Er, we’d say those lines got crossed long before the first atom got split. Comparing the risk of getting behind the wheel of your Pinto versus that of irradiation from your local nuclear energy plant would lead you to walk to your job at the plant. Unsafe at any Speed was written a long time ago and it wasn’t about nuclear energy. And that’s just a random example.

See here for the NRC’s discussion of risk assessment. Basic, but you’ll get the idea.

One thing Professor Beck mentions  - and which we agree with – is that risk is relative to other risk.

In the case of nuclear power, we are witnessing a clash of risk cultures. Thus the Chernobyl experience is perceived differently in Germany and France, Britain, Spain or Ukraine and Russia. For many Europeans, the threats posed by climate change now loom much more largely than nuclear power or terrorism.

I love that linking of nuclear power and terrorism – rather saucy, Professor Beck. But we might note that Chernobyl no longer weighs heavily in the world imagination because it happened nearly a quarter century ago and nothing has followed it to act as a new fear magnet. Those who dislike nuclear energy have been foiled in their search for scary iconography for a long time. (And given some of Russia’s moves in the nuclear energy arena, we’d say their fears are well and truly put to bed, too. We’ll give him Ukraine – maybe.)

We’ve giving short shrift to Professor Beck’s full argument to have some fun, so do read the whole thing. We disagree with all of it, and it is written as though a lot of academic freight got pulled out of it somewhere along the line, but it is very interesting.

From the 1960 movie of The Time Machine. Actually, Yucca Mountain might have more trouble from the Morlocks (that’s it on the right), since they live underground and build tunnels than from the Eloi (embodied by Yvette Mimieux – good to see Max Factor made it to the far future), who live in wine-and-cheese comfort when not being eaten by the Morlocks.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Gee, if the biggest problem we have is how to warn our descendants to whom we've passed a post-apocalyptic world about the dangers of a nuclear waste dump, things must be going great! Wouldn't it be more productive to find ways to avoid the collapse of civilization in the first place? For example, by expanding our use of nuclear power?

George Carty said...

Exactly.

Linguistic drift could be a problem, but I think "DANGER! KEEP OUT! NUCLEAR WASTE!" in English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic (plus the local language if not one of these) would be enough...

Anonymous said...

One could envision a scenario, a perfectly reasonable one, where as language evolves and changes the signage could be changed to reflect that. People have managed that before, translating documents and books (the Bible, for example) into contemporary prose.

I don't think it is an unmanageable problem.

Jim Muckerheide said...

"Unsafe at any speed" targeted the Corvair! :-)

KLA said...

The whole issue is moot.
If civilization has collapsed to the level of the stone age, then the remaining people don't have the technology to dig deep into a mountain. Hence no danger to them.
If civilization did NOT collapse, and they dig for it, then they know what it is and need it. No warning neccessary.
If Yucca has been forgotten, but there is still a civilization at least on the 19th century level, then they can read and understand it even if it's just in plain english. Even we today (and people in the 19th century) can read and understand texts that were written over 5000 years ago, right back to the invention of writing. And we can read and understand those texts in languages that have dissapeared thousands of years ago like ancient egytian, sumerian, sanskrit, ancient chinese and many others. And those old texts were NOT written with the intent to be understandable by later civilizations. And todays english is not spoken only by a relatively small group of a few thousand people, as those languages were.

Anonymous said...

To George Carty: I have to wonder how many will be able to read and write once Obama finishes with the Dept. of Ed. Sadly, this could be a real problem if the American people continues its headlong rush into madness.

Mark Flanagan said...

To Jim: Yes, I know Nader's book was about the Corvair. My dad had one - our car in the seventies was a Pinto, another metallic death trap. Gulp! Bottom line: Professor Beck's argument is not very good.

To Kia: and the fuel is in very thick casks. More danger from being crushed than irradiated.

To anonymous: actually, the education department is a republican bugaboo. Dems tend to like it.

George Carty said...

Even we today (and people in the 19th century) can read and understand texts that were written over 5000 years ago, right back to the invention of writing. And we can read and understand those texts in languages that have dissapeared thousands of years ago like ancient egytian, sumerian, sanskrit, ancient chinese and many others.

Specialist scholars may be able to read those ancient texts, but could a contemporary English speaker understand Beowulf (or even Chaucer)?

Anonymous said...

...but could a contemporary English speaker understand Beowulf (or even Chaucer)?

I can, and I've never thought of myself as particularly smart. Just ordinary folks. I read James Joyce in high school and was able to make sense of it (at least my English teacher who gave me an A+ in the course thought I did). It's not too hard if you try.

Then again, if you're postulating an Idiocracy-type future, you might have a point. But as an earlier poster noted, in that case the people will either have forgotten about the repository and won't know where it is, and likely would not have the smarts to either dig down 2000 ft. into volcanic tuff to retrieve the cannisters, and even if they did that they probably couldn't open them.

KLA said...

George,

If they dig into a mountain and come across signs in a language the workers and engineers don't understand, they would most likely get the specialists. That's what we do today too.
If they don't, and get killed in the process (unlikely), then I would call that "evolution in action". The waste would then act as chlorine for the gene-pool.