All futures are possible
What was the weirdest piece of information you came across in your research for the play?
I don’t think any of it seemed weird or strange, unfortunately. I was surprised to find out how many nuclear power plants we have in the United States. I was startled to discover that all of our policies on nuclear regulation are being enforced in the absence of emergency plans or crisis management. People proceed as though they’re always going to have an unbroken chain of civic control for thousands of years, and it’s not like that’s ever happened or is even possible.
— Anne Washburn, playwright of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, as told to Nirmala Nataraj
Whether the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were intended to bring a quick Japanese surrender and spare the estimated millions of Allied casualties, or whether Truman’s darker purpose was to threaten Stalin, is a question of history that no amount of graduate theses will settle. So much power was unleashed with those two detonations that trying to comprehend what happened will be our species’ unending task. We will never finish.
Out of fear, dread, and–I hope–shame, the Eisenhower administration launched the Atoms for Peace program with a speech before the UN General Assembly on December 8, 1953. The United States would share its nuclear research with other countries, publicly to bring its benefits to all, privately to head off the Soviets sharing theirs. (Those history grad students have since revealed that “Atoms for Peace” was partly a Cold War propaganda ploy, named “Operation Candor”.)
Still, Eisenhower was no armchair intellectual. He knew what old-fashioned war could do, and understood the gravity of what nuclear war would be. Perhaps the last Lincoln Republican, he dismissed those that would have undone FDR’s New Deal as “stupid” and sent in troops to defend black students against Southern racists. Prescient for his “military-industrial complex” warning, he must have known, back on that December day in 1953, that putting the genie back in the bottle was impossible. The only hope humanity had would be to be good, and hope the genie would go along.
The United States knows that if the fearful trend of atomic military buildup can be reversed, this greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon, for the benefit of all mankind. The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future.
Nuclear power seems like a noble goal, even a no-brainer. As a kid, it was obvious. How else would we power starships and bases on the Moon? Space: 1999 showed some downsides–nuclear waste blowing the Moon out of its orbit was something I hadn’t considered, but found exciting, and then sad–but we couldn’t continue burning fossil fuels. That was so primitive.
In the fourth grade, my talented-and-gifted class went on a tour of the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant. It had begun construction in 1974; our visit was in 1979 or 1980, after the Three Mile Island emergency. What would turn out to be a partial meltdown of a Pennsylvania reactor spurred our visit. I remember sitting in a very large, very lush auditorium where plant engineers smiled in anticipation of softball questions. I have a very clear memory of asking exactly what had gone wrong with the Three Mile Island reactor, and how it was the engineers could insist that problem couldn’t happen at Comanche Peak. The woman gagged at me. I’m sure she wasn’t expecting that from an eleven-year-old, but I had been reading Ranger Rick since I was five. I was worried about the animals.
Removed to rural-suburban Texas, I had no knowledge of the anti-nuclear movement, which included massive marches in Washington and all over Europe. I loved the space program and, despite doubts the Comanche Peak visit planted in my subconscious, believed that nuclear power was fine. All the science fiction stories featured it. It was an advance and a wave of the future. I was just figuring out what facts were.
Back at school, we had a ‘debate’ over nuclear power, overseen by our teacher: is nuclear power good or bad? My memory is nerd boys said good and all the girls said bad. Somebody caught a glance of our teacher’s notes, and since she had written down more points the boys had raised, we declared we had “won”. Girls and their worries over pollution and accidents and what happens to the waste were all overblown, solvable problems, or non-problems, though I don’t think I thought that way. My rock-solid belief was that the adults would never do anything so dangerous as the worst case, never mind Three Mile Island. Adults would never do anything as wanton and stupid as the girls were suggesting.
Comanche Peak became operational in 1990, four years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. There is still no place to store high-test nuclear waste, and whether a vault of the kind required can even be made is a question still unasked.
Fukushima Unit 4 spent fuel pool
Since Chernobyl, high school, ongoing oil wars, and lately the revelation that Exxon sunk its own climate change research, nuclear power has fizzled. Outrageous design costs made worse by construction delays and mistakes, plus the realization that nuclear waste has to go somewhere, took the shine off Atoms for Peace. Nuclear plants aren’t protested the way they were in the Eighties because there is no need. The moneymen have worked their spreadsheets and found that nuclear power doesn’t pencil out.
Fukushima taught a new lesson.
Faulty design, a lack of what should be obvious foresight, panicked response and opaque communication of what was really happening: nothing new here. The mainstream media fanned the panic but did little to tease out information, as in solid facts, but they have devolved to retyping press releases for some time now. (Radioactive water releases were given in “tons”. Metric tons? Who measures water in tons? Why is it not given in gallons? That measuring in mass gives a smaller number than volume is my guess, but who knows.) Video shows explosions that were probably “prompt moderated criticality” events–brief moments when nuclear reactions occurred inside the tsunami-damaged reactors, blowing them up. Uranium fuel rods, both inside the reactor and spent fuel contained in nearby holding pools, were released into the environment. Cleaning up the wreckage, if it is possible at all, has no known endpoint. All old hat, just variations on what happened back at Chernobyl, where the temporary “sarcophagus” that entombed the reactor in the late Eighties has disintegrated, and a “New Safe Confinement” structure is being built to replace it. Estimated to cost about $3 billion, the new structure is designed to last 100 years. What happens at year 101, with only 99,899 years to go until the wreck loses the worst of its radioactivity (or 999,899, depending on how you measure), is another unasked question. Maybe we will spend more to build a “New New Safe Confinement”, and on and on, concrete shells encasing one another, like a pearl.
But none of this is new, or even interesting. Without explosions and flames, attention is elsewhere. But in that brief window when Fukushima had the world rapt, someone not on the approved list got on TV and said something so profound, it was missed: any nuclear power plant can suffer a catastrophic failure of the kind that destroyed Fukushima.
All power plants are cooled by water. Loss of cooling isn’t catastrophic to a coal- or gas-fired power plant: in event of cooling failure, the fuel can be turned off. Once filled with uranium fuel rods and the reaction is started, nuclear reactors cannot be shut off in this way, and require constant cooling. While the chain reaction can turned down to a low level, the reactor still produced tremendous heat, which must be removed. Failure to remove this heat will destroy the reactor, one way or another.
Fukushima suffered two losses that doomed it. One was the tsunami disabling or destroying some of its cooling water pumps. The second was the failure of the emergency diesel generators that powered the remaining pumps, either through destruction of the generators, their connections, and their control systems, or their running out of fuel. Loss of cooling not only led to the reactors overheating, but also the overheating of spent fuel, cooled by the same system. Depending on what story you read, Fukushima was blown up from a buildup of hydrogen gas produced when the spent fuel got hot enough to turn its cooling water into hydrogen and oxygen, or when the fuel in the reactor did the same thing, or when the spent fuel boiled all its cooling water away and exposed itself to air. Or, maybe, when the reactor fuel or spent fuel melted together and went critical. We may never know for sure.
“Loss of the ultimate heat sink” is this failure’s name.
Man becomes his vision
Buckminster Fuller is a genius to some, an eccentric to others; to the unkind, a nut. He thought big–not in size, but the number of connections, and how you could connect connections together. His geodesic domes are sprinkled here and there.
Don’t fight forces–use them. This was his mantra. Why build a big machine that needs power and maintenance and will eventually break when you can get nature to do the work for free? By accident, he built a house that cooled itself. He made exacting study of how to do only the work required, and letting gravity, sunlight, and design do it.
A nuclear power plant is the antithesis of Bucky Fuller’s ethic. All pipes and wires and concrete, they bristle with valves, ducts, switches, controls, and every other thing that aches to break. It’s an unwieldy, delicate and fussy contraption, poised with ungainly artifice above a tireless entropic sea. The only way to go from there is down.
But, they are here. The United States alone has 100 reactors (99 operating, 5 under construction–the long drought is over) and boosters have new vigor in pushing for more. Ones built in the Sixties and Seventies have had their performances extended to the 2030s, or later.
I appreciate how Bucky saw the world. To him, I like to think, a hundred nuclear plants lugging their possible failure into the future is not something to dread, but an opportunity. The forces contained in them are natural, after all. Now that they are here, how can we use them?
I’m not an engineer; my degree is in English and history. But, I’ve taken science and math classes and long appreciated the mindset. I can perform automotive repairs by following the Haynes manual, and for money I do some light computer programming. I do it well enough to keep getting jobs. I know better than to channel Bucky at work, which would only baffle the MBAs. But Bucky’s Dymaxion mindset is great for blue sky thinking that is connected to the ground.
Spent fuel rods are hot. After powering a reactor, they sit in a spent fuel cooling pool. Years pass before the rods are cool enough to consider being moved to temporary or permanent storage. Given a lack of a permanent grave, most spent fuel languishes in the spent fuel pool, though some has found a semi-permanent (or long-term temporary, given your point of view) home in “dry cask storage“.
A temporary solution to a permanent problem
Sealed off, the rods continue to cool and decline in radioactivity for thousands and thousands (and thousands) of years.
Bucky would see this as a gold mine. I do too. Free heat! We’ve already spent enormous treasure to dig up uranium, concentrate and purify it, and form it into rods. We built big machines to make it even hotter, transmuting some of it into elements that will be even hotter for even longer than the uranium we put in. And we’re just going to throw it away?
But it’s radioactive! Glowing green, like out of the movies!
Yes, but what’s done is done. Apparently it’s safe enough to leave these casks out in the open, for birds to perch on.
But steel and concrete casks won’t last forever! No, they won’t, and that’s part of the solution.
WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, is the only long-term high-level nuclear waste storage facility in the United States. (The Yucca Mountain repository, almost completed but mired in perpetual controversy, was defunded in 2011.) WIPP is a specialized mine, with tunnels and rooms carved out of a 250 million year old salt layer 600 meters beneath the surface. Barrels and casks of waste are hauled down, sealed in the salt, and fingers crossed for 24,000 years.
In 1992, Sandia National Laboratories published the study Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, principal authors Kathleen M. Trauth, Stephen C. Hera and Robert V. Guzowsti. The report is a fascinating read despite its length and is an exhaustive answer to the government’s question: how do we warn future societies about the dangers of what is buried here? The question’s enormity is summed up by the frontispiece, which quotes the Pirkei Avot and Shelley’s Ozymandias: how do you communicate a complex message to people you know nothing about, and who know nothing about you?
It’s an interesting question, a corollary to people sending messages out into space, hoping ET will understand them, or listening for needle messages in a universe haystack. Some very smart people dig deep into what meaning is and how people make it. They don’t shy from the complications.
Their conclusions assume, if do not state outright, that the future is a simpler, ignorant, and fallen time. Assuming languages we now use will be forgotten, they propose massive, threatening earthworks to warn people away, like this:
Look at the report’s page 149 for sketches. Even though they concede a written message may be useless, the authors suggest one, at their highest level of complexity, on page 103:
This place is a burial place for radioactive wastes. We believe this place is not dangerous IF IT IS LEFT ALONE! We are going to tell you what lies underground, why you should not disturb this place, and what may happen if you do. By giving you this information, we want you to protect yourselves and future generations from the dangers of this waste….
People who drink the water will drink the poison. If the water is used for animals or crops, those too will be poisoned and the people who eat them will be poisoned. It may take many years for the sickness and death to show. Radioactivity poisons people because it can cause cancer….
[The message continues at length with detailed descriptions of the nuclear and non-nuclear poisons buried, how radioactive they are and for how long, the year on our current calendars (including the Chinese) when it was buried, and how to measure the passage of time based on a diagram of Sirius, Canopus, Arcturus, and Vega.]
Do not destroy these markers. If the message is difficult to read, rewrite the message in your language in the blank area on this wall. If the markers are worn or missing, add new ones in longer-lasting materials in languages that you speak. This site, built in … by the United States of America government, represents a first attempt to responsibly dispose of wastes for an extended period of time. Other sites exist that contain radioactive wastes, and they are marked in a similar manner. We have shown these sites on a map in this room. Do not disturb any of these sites.
Some message to the future! How many people today, out scrounging for rocks or scrap metal, would understand it? Would understand the spiky earthworks? The authors spend some time wondering how to build an impressive artifact that will both inspire dread and fear but not be destroyed, or plundered for building materials.
Loss of culture is another kind of loss of the ultimate heat sink.
What would Bucky think of this enterprise, and–more importantly–of its assumptions? The key assumption I see is: the most certain safe future for this waste is hiding it away and hoping ignorance doesn’t unearth it. Thus, there’s a trust in a ‘positive ignorance’: not knowing will keep you safe. I don’t know if Bucky would go for this. I wouldn’t. Very few things humans find of any value go unpilfered. Long after our technological society is gone, who of those who come after would not see this great earthwork as a locked door with something juicy behind it?
Here is my suggestion. It solves the problem of time, of the confusing message that something hidden away with great effort isn’t valuable, of entropy wearing away all our works and intentions, and of trusting ignorance for safety:
Put it in the town square, and make hot water with it.
“Are you crazy?” No. (Thank you for asking.) I understand your reaction, but let the panic pass and think. (Remember: panic never solves anything.) You have a powerful thing you can’t really get rid of. Yes, it’s dangerous, but so are fire and moldy cheese. We’ve found ways to control both and use them to our advantage. Sure, at times things go wrong, but for 99.99+% of the time, it doesn’t. Yes, with something like nuclear waste 99.99+% may not be sufficient, but this is countered the same way we control fire and moldy food: with education and training. In other words, culture.
I imagine, in the center of towns large and small, a modest but solid civic structure. It’s staid, probably stone, like banks or libraries we built during the Depression and before. This is the center of a district heating system, where all the underground pumps and equipment hum and breathe, and where all the pipes converge. Behind multiple walls of thick stone, in a sub-basement beneath street level, is the small stainless steel vessel that contains a fuel rod or two. A bigger vessel holds the rod or rods. Smaller vessels connect two heat exchangers that transfer the decay heat to the outside, but provide isolation from the innermost water or other heat transfer fluid, which contacts the rods. It could look a little like this (noting this is a diagram for a reactor, not the simpler system I propose):
A typical nuclear reactor. Image: cnx.org
My idea has important differences:
- No “reactor core”. The orange vessel doesn’t need control rods; the decay isn’t fast or strong enough to need controlling.
- This vessel lies horizontal. The rod(s) would lie on some durable material that wouldn’t corrode or weaken under centuries of contact with the decaying fuel. Maybe ceramic, or carbon fiber? I’d make it in a waffle pattern, with pits and high spots, so if the fuel rod disintegrates over time, the chunks would fall into separate valleys and stay isolated. They couldn’t come together and cause a “prompt moderated criticality“.
- The first heat exchanger has no gap for steam, because no steam is produced. The system operates without an air gap, or a small one with a valve to release any gas or bubbles. (Another thing that can break, but a necessity that is easy to repair or make. A water heater pressure relief valve could be enough.) Only enough fuel is sealed away to produce hot fluid (say 90° C), which cools over millenia. Water with some kind of antifreeze, or another liquid that wouldn’t boil or react (Freon?), serves as the working fluid.
- Place the primary vessel (the “reactor” and the primary heat exchanger) lower than the secondary exchangers/generators. Hot water rises, is cooled when it’s drawn off, and falls again, eliminating one pump (something that needs power and breaks.)
The “primary vessel” would be much simpler and need fewer intrusions–cut-outs for pipes or manholes–thus making it safer and less prone to leaks. Leaks would be less likely to form as there is no great pressure or heat to be contained. Overengineering enables the original materials to last many centuries, if not millenia. (Could the vessel holding the rods be made of thick, new-tech glass? It would never corrode.) Yes, pipes made to last that long would be expensive, but spread out over a thousand years, it’s cheap, and the hot water is free. Modest electricity could be produced from thermal conversion devices, like the kind that power space probes and fancy campstoves.
What materials and fluids would be used? How would this be engineered? Is it really safe? I don’t know. I haven’t even drawn this on the back of an envelope. But it certainly seems possible to create a safe and very long-lived system if the scale is small, where “safe” is seen in context with things like chemical waste or automotive travel.
Caretaking is the advantage here. There is enough spent fuel for thousands of district hot water and power setups like this. Each city or town that gets one makes it a civic centerpiece. Every town will have hundreds of tinkerers and mechanics with more than enough skill to monitor and maintain such a system, especially if it is built out of simple, durable, and repairable pieces. Adults bond to young people as they pass on maintenance skills, or expand the system, or improve on the design. Everyone is taught about the system, where it came from, how it works, and its dangers. Schoolkids grow up with field trips; back in school, they make collages and write plays about their long-gone ancestors who bequeathed these strange gifts.
Nuclear waste needs watching, so give it watchers. Everybody knows it’s dangerous, but everybody knows how to keep it safe. It’s worth the effort because of free hot water makes it a good deal: it’s a little golden goose that doesn’t bite your hand so long as you respect it.
Humility is the greatest lesson. Long ago, I hope children will learn on a field trip, people tried to stop a terrible war with a terrible weapon. It worked, but the weapon was cursed: our ancestors were hypnotized by the weapon’s terrible power and could not stop making it. (Maybe some metaphysical discussion here, about transference, and projection, and seductive nature of fear.) At last aware of their mistake but still gripped by the curse, our ancestors tried to remake the terrible weapons into something that would do good. Somehow–we don’t really know how–our ancestors broke the curse. It worked, in a way, but they didn’t think it through. Unintended consequences caught up with them, and these consequences are so big they are still going, even now. The monster was made small enough to fit inside this metal shell, and it gets smaller as he sleeps, giving off the heat of his dreams. Long ago, your ancestors built these works to draw off the monster’s dreams, like we draw off honey from bees. You, children, reap the benefits when you turn on the tap, but you also pay with vigilance and respect. Like the bees, the power inside this vessel doesn’t care about you. It will sting hard enough you may die. You must be careful in your care.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is a post-apocalyptic drama without the pornography of violence. There is violence, sure: the play opens with our world ending, but the characters don’t fall into the exposition trap of groaner “science fiction”. One character whines about confusing information about how far away one must be from a destroyed nuclear power plant to be safe, and for how many decades, or centuries, or millenia. The power is in character: human frailty is on display. A noise makes everyone jump and pull out firearms; when a haggard traveler appears, he suffers some brutalization before the survivor group recognizes him as one of their own. Everyone then takes turns reading from their lists of names, long lists where everyone has bitter reverence drawn out. The traveler knows no name, but he misidentifies one; the woman with the list snarls at him to stop trying to make the person he met fit the person she wants to find.
I saw it a week ago, on November 10, 2015. Tickets were thin, but I selected “best available”. The system gave me standing room only. The house manager explains there are always no-shows, and as we’re at the top of the list, we’ll make out better than we think. He’s right: we are front and center, first row. I could touch the actors.
At intermission, the people next to us don’t return. The house manager replaces them with a pair of women. They say the play is weird, but are staying for the last act. From chatter, I sense weird is the common assessment: this is awfully grim for the Simpsons.
I think about our seats. Did someone else’s misfortune become our luck? Are parents home with a sick child, or worried in an emergency room? Did someone fail to come home? Am I am unknowing ghoul, fortune smiling on me by frowning on someone else?
Bad things happen all the time, and always to someone else, or people in the past. Our narrator will always tell our story.
The Ise Jingu grand shrine, a Shinto shrine in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, is rebuilt every twenty years. This has been done for between 1,300 and 2,000 years. Elders pass on skills to youth, and on and on. Like Theseus’s Ship, the shrine from twenty-one years ago is not the shrine you see today, but it is the same shrine as 2,000 years ago.
Shielded within a district heating system or buried in salt 2/3 of a kilometer down, a spent fuel rod will be the same spent fuel rod today or ten thousand years hence. The people who tend it, or who are ignorant of it, will rise and fall in generational waves, but they will always be its tenders.
Will our ostensibly sophisticated society consider putting its worst excess on display in its homely town squares? I don’t know. I think it is at least as good an idea as nuclear power, but with the benefit of acknowledging that we don’t think ahead very well, and always in retrospect.
Nobody knows the future. This is solace for me, and exciting too. There is always a choice to do good, even if we don’t know what that is. I take the fact that a good choice is not always apparent as a feature of my human limits.
Everything ends. Everything. Accepting this is freedom. It’s a corollary to accepting there is no afterlife. Imagine how different our world would be if everyone accepted this as true. How much more kindly would we treat each other? How reluctant would we be to rise in anger? How much more deliberate would we be, and how eager to see how precious is even the smallest thing?
In a far future where all titanic struggles and aspirations are forgotten, how amazing we would be to leave behind a warm bath and a community to care for it.