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.