Bodies are a big business. Susie Orbach

The Least Bad Option

Instead of locking nuclear waste away in deep repositories, we should entrust it to the care of future generations. Our responsibility must become their responsibility.

For decades, Germany has sought to identify sites for a potential deep geological repository to permanently store its nuclear waste. So far, the search has been unsuccessful. A new initiative is currently underway that will consider all possible options. Yet it would be better to own up to a simple truth: the proposed depository will never be built. It’s a fiction that exists only on paper.

To see why, let us consider the following question: What criteria would have to be met in order for nuclear waste storage to be permanent, while also ensuring social and political acceptance of the proposed site? First and foremost, all stakeholders would have to be convinced that stored nuclear waste would remain isolated from the biosphere for several tens of thousands of years. Yet this conviction presupposes detailed knowledge about future geological and climatic developments. Over the course of the last ten thousand years, Europe experienced severe climatic fluctuations, including a glacial period. Future developments might be similar, or they might be very different – we simply don’t know. Exact forecasts are difficult because surface conditions can be influenced by dynamics deep inside the earth’s mantle or by external events such as the impact of a large meteorite. Data from previous millennia can teach us about the expected variability of the earth’s climate, but it does not enable serious predictions about the far future. Scientific progress in the coming decades is unlikely to overcome these limitations.

Mankind might change as well. Several centuries hence, humans will have evolved, possibly into a different and unexpected direction. Again, a look into the prehistoric past illustrates the fact that modern man has populated the earth for a remarkably short period of time. Our defining features and characteristics emerged only within the last few millennia. It’s impossible to predict how humanity will evolve over the next ten thousand years – maybe future generations will curse us for burying precious nuclear resources in deep repositories instead of making them easily accessible.

The idea of deep geological repositories is predicated on the notion of permanence: It assumes that the planet’s geological and climatic realities are unlikely to undergo drastic change, and that future humans will be largely indistinguishable from ourselves. We might not know what’s good for our children, but we seem remarkably convinced that permanent storage of nuclear material will still be seen as the best possible option a few centuries into the future.

Some futurists discuss scenarios that posit a breakdown of communications between today’s civilization and future generations. They argue that mankind will evolve so radically that the humans of the future won’t understand the language and signs we use today to communicate. Yet their reaction is usually to demand even deeper, more permanent and less accessible storage – which is practically impossible.

Is there an alternative? How should we treat nuclear waste if it cannot be permanently hidden and rendered safe and inaccessible? The answer is relatively simple: Don’t do anything drastic. Most nuclear material is safely stored and permanently monitored on the surface. That’s where it should stay: Visible, protected, and clearly marked as our most dangerous waste products, as our bleakest legacy for future generations.

To our children, we should say: Sorry, but it’s a legacy you have to accept and safeguard. We did our best to keep the waste safe, and it it’s your turn to do the same. Maybe you will develop the technology to use it productively. And if you don’t, keep guarding it, and eventually entrust it to your children.

Compared to the legacy that previous generations have left us – apparently without too much of a bad conscience about their waste, their toxins, and their destruction of the natural environment – this approach is remarkably responsible. It would also free significant resources, intellectually, politically, and materially, to try and tackle some of today’s big problems.

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