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September 20, 2017

Should we warn future generations about nuclear waste?

(Lennart Tange / Flickr)

If you could communicate with someone living 24,000 years in the future, what would you say? Would you ask about advances in technology, or maybe about their culture?

There are many things that we would want them to tell us about the future, but there’s one thing that it would be vital for us to tell them: to stay away from nuclear waste storage facilities. No matter how deep the materials are buried underground or how secure the facilities are, there’s still a chance that some curious person will seek them out.

According to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, radioactive waste can vary in how long it takes to decay and turn into “harmless materials.” While some radioactive elements decay quickly, others take many millennia. For example, Plutonium-239 “has a half-life of 24,000 years,” meaning that half of its radioactivity will decay in that time. Exposure to radioactive materials can kill cells or cause cell mutations, leading to cancer.

Since we can’t time travel to warn future generations about these dangers, we have to find another way to make sure they receive this message. We need to attempt to make a warning that can last for tens of thousands of years.

At first, the solution may seem simple. We could just put up signs saying “Keep Out” or “Danger.” But even if the signs were extremely durable and could last long enough, people wouldn’t be able to understand English (or any other contemporary language) to read them that far into the future. Languages are constantly changing and evolving, and the words that we use today would be incomprehensible to everyone by then. Even scholars of ancient languages would have difficulty with languages from so long ago.

We also can’t rely on the government to maintain or guard these facilities forever. The United States is currently only 241 years old. It’s extremely unlikely that it would still be the same country 24,000 years from now.

Experts have proposed using symbols or pictures instead of words to get around the language issue. These pictures would portray terrified faces, or those in extreme pain, to warn people to stay away. Other, more fanciful ideas include that will change color when near nuclear waste or creating myths that are passed down through generations by telling stories about the dangers of these facilities so that even if people don’t know or understand what they hold, they will still stay away out of superstition.

Of course, there’s also the concern that these elaborate warnings will only serve to draw more attention to nuclear waste storage facilities, and make people curious about what’s inside them. They could have the opposite effect of making people explore the facilities. But an attempt to warn people is better than no attempt at all.

Several writers who have discussed this issue came to the opposite conclusion: that we should do nothing. Juliet Lapidos, writing for Slate, believes that “ultimately the option of doing nothing—of leaving the site devoid of markers—seems like the most elegant solution of all.” A benefit of this “relaxed approach,” Lapidos writes, is that it’s cheaper.

In Forbes, James Conca writes that it’s “a foolish idea to alert the future that nuclear waste is buried deep underground in a permanent geologic repository” or “to waste resources on such an uncertain outcome.”

It seems remarkably shortsighted to avoid warning future generations about nuclear waste so we can save money. The value of saving human lives, or even the potential to save human lives, outweighs the cost.

This conundrum may be a difficult one, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t at least attempt to solve it. It may have seemed impossible that humans would ever land on the moon, but that didn’t stop people from trying (and succeeding).

People may wonder why they should care about those living thousands of years from now. However, a person who may encounter radioactive materials could be your great-great-great (etc.) grandchild. If you could prevent your distant descendants from dying from exposure to nuclear waste, would you?

But even if there wasn’t a familial connection, humans have a responsibility to try to preserve humanity, or at least not to destroy it. By creating nuclear weapons and using nuclear energy, we made a mess. Now, we need to clean it up to avoid catastrophic repercussions for future generations.

Jessica Primavera is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at jprimavera@umass.edu.

Comments
One Response to “Should we warn future generations about nuclear waste?”
  1. Robert Start says:

    This next generation sodium reactor can use spent fuel rods as the primary power source, reducing nuclear waste stockpiles by 95%. At the least, we can leave the world somewhat less polluted until sustainable methods are 100%.

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