Inside the Capitol

Sunday, May 21, 2006

5-26 Marking the WIPP Site

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- The U.S. government will spend 100 years and billions of dollars to construct a warning system to caution future generations not to dig at the WIPP site near Carlsbad.
It will take something like 250,000 years for the radioactive material buried at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to totally decay. The plan is to design a marker that will last the first 10,000 of those years.
That's extravagant. Sure, it's responsible to protect our children, but we're talking about 500 generations of children.
WIPP is scheduled to fill up in 2033. After that, it will be guarded by the Department of Energy for 100 years. That will take care of about five generations of our grandchildren. During that period, this warning system will be constructed.
We aren't talking simple "keep out" signs. We're thinking Egyptian pyramids. The current plan is to construct a berm 33 feet high and 98-feet wide all the way around the sight. That's two miles of berm.
It won't be earthen, like the mounds built by ancients that still can be seen in various parts of the United States. It will be much tougher -- maybe ultra-hard concrete. Inside the berm would be powerful magnets and radar reflectors so it looks like we did it on purpose.
Then there will be 48 granite markers, 28 feet high, located inside and outside the berm, containing warnings in many different languages. We should be able to save a little there.
The U.S. Senate has passed a law requiring everyone to speak English. Since laws, once passed, are almost never repealed, we should be able to assume that anyone drilling in the United States in the next 10,000 years will be able to speak English.
But what if they can't? The federal government appointed a panel of scientists, futurists and historians to envision the far-distant future. Evidently they watched too many science fiction and disaster movies -- not realizing they are fiction -- and came up with scenarios that either revert our civilization back to the Stone Age or advance it to control by robots and cyborgs.
Not much attention was paid to a civilization sufficiently advanced to detect what is down there and either stay away from it or put it to a productive use.
It's true that we have discovered ancient civilizations which we don't fully understand, but we've learned much about preservation and should be able to do a better job for the future.
Obviously the WIPP planners are trying to do that. They envision many different symbols, printed on disks of varying materials, distributed throughout the site in hopes that something can be deciphered.
It's a worthy endeavor, but if our future world is inhabited by cavemen, cyborgs, aliens or Iranians, how elaborate do our warnings need to be?
And what about the forbidden fruit problem that has been around since the Garden of Eden and may always be? No amount of warnings about curses inscribed on the tombs of ancient pharaohs were successful in deterring grave robbers.
So what about leaving it to melt into the desert? What are the chances that people will ever want to dig there? There is some oil deep underneath. But this will be guarded until 2133. By then, we surely will have discovered alternative fuels.
And if someone does dig or drill into it? A large-scale disaster is pretty unlikely. The likely result is sickness and death on a very small scale. And then they stop digging.
There is plenty of time for a future group to be empanelled to decide how likely it is that the site ever will be penetrated, if unmarked, and what the consequences would be. That could then be weighed against the costs of the current plan and the possibilities of that not succeeding.
Don't blame our government for wanting to create this monstrosity. It surely was designed to satisfy the people who want to make it as difficult as possible to continue using nuclear energy.
FRI, 5-26-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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