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Inside Svalbard, the Doomsday Vault Saving the Past and Future of Agriculture

Posted on Monday, July 25th, 02011 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Long Term Science, Millennial Precedent   chat 0 Comments

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is an underground repository located at 78 degrees North latitude that currently stores nearly a million seed samples to preserve crop diversity for the future. Many see the vault as a resource for a “doomsday” scenario brought on by severe climate change or other ecological disaster. Long Now has been following the Svalbard vault closely since it was first announced over a decade ago. In 02011, Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose had the opportunity to visit Svalbard with unprecedented access to the vault through a partnership with the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI).

Rose’s account of the trip follows below, and includes an update on the recent surge in public interest surrounding Svalbard over the past year.


Svalbard February 02011, (most photos, video and sound recordings by Steve Rowell)



The Planning:

Over the last couple years artist Steve Rowell has been planning a project to document the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as part of a larger project about the beginnings and future of agriculture.  The Seed Vault is designed with a 1000 year design life to store back-up samples of every food crop seed in the world.  About a year ago Rowell contacted me to see if Long Now would be interested in participating in his project.  I said that we would as long as I got to come along on one of the trips to Svalbard and meet the creators of the Vault.  The Norwegian government management of the vault required that Rowell also get participation from Scandinavian nations, specifically Norway as part of his project.  Over the last year he was able to secure funding and collaboration with a Norwegian and a Dutch artist, and with it an official invite to visit the Vault.  Long Now would cover our accommodations for this scouting trip, and I would cover my own flight.  The Seed Vault administrators seem to be a bit overwhelmed with the interest in the Vault.  They open the Vault about twice a year to deposit new seed stock and they are apparently inundated with requests to visit.  However the remoteness of the location and their limited time on site means they really don’t have time to give many tours.   But with persistence and the Scandinavian participation Steve was able to secure us the invite.  We quickly booked our complicated flights, and found accommodation in one of the few places to stay in winter.

The Journey:
On February 22nd I boarded a Lufthansa jet bound for Munich out of San Francisco.  I would be meeting Steve in Oslo the following evening as he was traveling from Washington DC.  It took three tries to fly out of Munich due to aircraft difficulties that resulted in me arriving at 1:30 am in Oslo.  After a couple hours of sleep I met Steve the next morning at the airport hotel breakfast area, and we boarded our SAS flight to Tromsø at the northern tip of Norway.  It was a rare clear day, and I was able to see the stunning fjords of Norway as we crossed the 66th Latitude into the Arctic circle.

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In Tromsø we were asked to exit the plane and go through an ID check.  I think it has something to do with the unique treaty status of the Spitsbergen Archipelago where Svalbard is.  The Spitsbergen Treaty, ratified almost a century ago, gives Norway sovereignty over the area, but they have to grant completely equal access, immigration, and commercialization to any signing nation with minimal taxation.  This also means that there are a number of refugees on the island, and I suspect they want to keep track of them.

We re-boarded in Tromsø to find the plane completely packed.  Aside from its major coal mining activity and arctic scientific research, Svalbard is a winter tourist destination to see the northern lights and wildlife.  Crammed onto the plane were Swedish grandmothers, Russian coal miners, scientists and even a couple babies.  Everyone had shed the usually fashionable northern European winter-wear for serious expedition wear.  Huge gore-tex parkas with fur lined hoods and patches reading “Antarctic Survey 1996” abounded.  We landed in 30 mph crosswinds and driving snow.  The pilot was clearly used to the airport bringing the plane down fast, but touching down without even a bump.  We caught the local bus to our accommodation – Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg, and even glimpsed the Seed Vault perched just above the airport.

Longyearbyen:
The town of Longyear was founded by an American from Massachusetts of the same name.  He bought the rights to a coal deposit from a Norwegian company and established one of the first permanent outposts on the island.  With the coming of the airport in the 70’s, Longyearbyen changed from a tiny mining town to a University town and adventure tourism destination.  I will not recount the history of Svalbard in any detail, it is well recorded by many sources including Wikipedia.  I do recommend The Future History of the Arctic by Emmerson for anyone interested in the bizarre and increasingly consequential future, present and past of the Arctic region.

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Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg (entry shown above) known locally as “The Rigg” is a long row of prefab buildings from various eras, mostly leftover from the mining industry.  Mary-Ann the proprietor is an amazingly sweet lady who has filled the place with the wildest and weirdest eclectica to be found on Svalbard.  Stuffed polar bears and arctic foxes mingle with old mining equipment and incredible historic photos.  She is also the chef, preparing hearty Nordic breakfasts and dinners of local seal, trout, reindeer and of course… whale. (In Norway they have t-shirts with a picture of a whale and the tag line “Smart food for smart people”.

Our first two bone-chilling days on the island we spent touring around in a borrowed car from Mary-Ann as our appointment at the Vault was not until our third day.  There are only a few miles of road there, the longest runs of which service the airport and the coal mines.  We got a tour of the Polar University where every student is taught arctic survival and how to use a rifle.  Everyone on Svalbard is required to own a gun, and be trained in its use, for protection from polar bears.  Svalbard is the first place I have ever seen 20 year old students walking in and out of school with rifles slung over their shoulders.

There is a strange basic irony about Svalbard that we discovered on the University tour.  One of the main research topics and political focuses on the island is climate change and atmospheric pollutants.  While the Norwegian mainland gets all its electricity from clean hydro-electric power, the only coal fired power plant in Norway is actually on Svalbard.  But without this coal power, the island would have to evacuate in less than 48 hours.  On Svalbard coal equals life.

The Seed Vault:
Sunday was the scheduled day to visit the Vault, and that morning it was a white out blizzard.  We had been told that not even the Royalty of Norway were allowed in the actual seed vault, and to expect to only see the entry hallway.  Our guide at the University, a few days before, was shocked that we would even be allowed to see the hallway.  The drive up the switchbacks was a bit perilous in the snowstorm.  We had to stop multiple times as visibility dropped to zero.  We met our hosts Roland von Bothmar and Anders Nilsson of NordGen at the top of the road, and together approached the vault.  Apparently they had spent a lot of time the previous day cracking and melting ice off the door as it had been above freezing allowing water to run down, and then freezing the door shut as the evening temperatures dropped. (Note that there is a lot value to a design that sheds water away from hinges, seems, and especially locks.)  Their work had paid off though as they were able to open the door quickly and we all scrambled in out of the nearly horizontal snow stinging our faces.

20110225_171844_Rowellseedvault.jpg

The 320 feet of fluorescent lit down sloping entry hallway is separated into three equal sections.  This first section we enter into from the outside door is not completely sealed off from the outside air.  You can see where the permafrost meets the building in a sloping line of hoarfrost built up on the wall.  We move deeper toward the next door.  Roland asks us to watch out for the ice on the floor, apparently the freeze thaw cycle melts the frost on the walls which then runs down the floor and then freezes again, making the ramp treacherous.

20110227_105216_Rowell-entry.jpg

On the other side of the door the hallway widens to a 20 foot diameter corrugated metal tube with a concrete floor.  Roland explains that this part of the vault has been shifting as the permafrost around us thaws and freezes.  Indeed the concrete on one side of the floor is cracking as evidence of this.  The wall at the end of this section is a new addition and is still covered in a tyvek like building wrap.

20110227_111232_Rowell-roundhall.jpg

Once through this next doorway the floor curiously transitions to asphalt, possibly to allow more flexibility and water permeability.  There is a pump system and grating newly installed in the floor to deal with the water from the thawing frost.   All of these water and freeze-thaw issues have been discovered since the vault was finished in 02008. The walls and ceiling of this section are about 25 feet wide and tall.  The very rough surface is a product of the drilling and blasting into the loose local shist.  The rock has been stabilized with large bolts roughly every 4′, covered in shot-crete, and then a white paint.  This wall, ceiling and floor finish is the same for the rest of the vault, including the seed chambers.  This hallway terminates in a large concrete wall with a metal door in it, and there are a few other doors on the right hand side at the end of the hall.  Above are cable racks and the ever present ventilation tubes.  One set of the tubes has frost building up on each joint section, these are the cooling pipes for the seed vault bringing them down from today’s ambient -5C to the desired -18C.  We enter the doors on the right into a control room.  This area has desks and a PC and a sign in book.  The list of people who have signed in is impressive,  Everyone from UN president Ban Ki-moon to President Jimmy Carter, and… us.  I had assumed this was as far as we were going to get, but then Roland says that he is turning the lights on in the next section for us, and warns that camera lenses brought into the colder areas will fog up.  We leave a selection of lenses here, and pass through the third lock. (Sound recording in the last hallway section)

20110227_105744_Rowell-hallend.jpg

Through the doors the asphalt starts sloping back upward and we enter into a lateral access hall where you can see each of the three seed vault doors.  The doors are embedded in concrete walls blocking off each rough blasted chamber.  The central chamber, vault 2, is covered in a thick layer of frost, cracked away around the door from the recent depositing of this years seed stock.  The cooling pipes above are fully covered in thick frost here as well.  The only adornment in the whole space is a spear-like metal shape on the wall, a seed sculpture by a Japanese artist who donates these pieces to seed banks all over the world.

There is a shelf here with some plastic bins and seed samples of the types found in the vault.  Glass jars, vials and bags each containing labeled seeds from different seed banks around the world.  Now they use a standardized mylar zip lock bag and plastic bin.  However Roland points out the USDA submissions always use their own box, a cardboard one.  It turns out that this seed vault is the second one on Svalbard.  There was one created in the 01980s for just Scandinavian species which is inside a shipping container in one of the old coal mines.  It was sealed 30 years ago and Roland hasn’t even been there.  Roland explains that all the seeds arrive by cargo plane a week ahead of each deposit, upon arrival they use the airport x-ray machine to make sure there are only seeds being deposited (e.g. no bombs).  In the last 3 years since the vault opened they now have over 637,000 varieties in the vault, and they have not even filled up one chamber yet.  Roland also confirms what we learned from the University, that all the seeds here are edible crop seeds with one exception.  Through a partnership with the University at Svalbard they have stored about 60 varieties of plants from the Spitsbergen Archipelago, none of which are edible.

20110227_112436_Rowell-seeds.jpg

Roland also mentioned all the crackpot theories and stories people have about the vault – like the one where it is really all the big bio-tech companies trying to control the world food supply. These of course are not true in the least. It is a Norwegian government project run by a consortium of academic, government and non-profit scientific entities. The seeds remain the property of each donating country, and the manifest is public (you can go to the website and download it now if you like). Depositors can pull their seeds at anytime for any reason. So far no company has submitted GMO seeds, likely because of how much disclosure they would have to do around them as part of the process.  The really interesting question though is what happens if a country ceases to be a country, who then owns the seeds and the rights to access them? (Sound recording in the transverse tunnel)

Roland opens one of the empty vaults for us.  We shuffle into the air lock area and after the outer door is closed, the next door is opened.  This vault, number three, has no seeds or cooling system.  It is about 100 feet deep and 30 feet wide and tall.  Some of the same shelving used in the active vault is in here, along with the plastic bins ready for more seeds to be delivered.  Amazingly the thick stone wall shared with the active vault two is covered in frost.  Wires dangle from sensor equipment on each wall, and there is one spot you can see the fractured native shist where the shot-crete doesn’t quite meet the floor.  We also go into the other empty vault, number one, and it is similar, except it is completely empty.  We ask if the spaces were sterilized or treated in any way before the seeds go in.  Roland says that they are not, and that the mylar bags and the cold are all the seeds need.

20110227_114346_Rowell-emptyvault.jpg

Then to our surprise, Roland offers to open the active vault.  Jimmy Carter wasn’t even allowed into that vault.   We crowd close to the ice covered door, we need to let as little cold air out as possible.  Roland unlocks the door with one of only four keys in the world, and we hear the frost crack at the hinges.

20110227_121226_Rowell.jpg

We rush into the airlock, and the next door is opened.  This vault is COLD.  The difference between -5c and -18c (0F) is palpable.  The inside of my nostrils hurts and the skin on my face tightens.  Most of the space near the door is taken up by the cooling equipment.  Apparently this equipment was installed just 6 months ago to replace the original equipment that was less efficient, loud and blustery.  Ten feet in front of us is a locked gate, and ten feet beyond that are the shelves and shelves of boxes.  Each box is marked with the logo of a seed bank from a different nation, the USDA cardboard boxes are front and center in the second row of shelves.  We are allowed a few photos and video and are ushered quickly back out again.

20110227_115546_Rowell-insidevault.jpg

After the visit I read some of the material we received.  It doesn’t go too much into the “why” of things, just what happened in the building process.  But what was apparent was that they had a very tight deadline, and I am not sure why.  Most of the decisions, location, contractors, and material choices were made solely for this expediency.  While it will likely be okay if people are there to maintain it, it seems some of the issues like the shist rock site, ferrous metal reinforced concrete, permafrost shifting and flooding, may require a lot of intervention to maintain the integrity of the vault.

I certainly learned a lot being here.  Mainly that even if you put your site in the hardest to reach place in the world, people will still want to come and visit it – in droves.  They did not design it for visiting, and are having to deal with this fact now.

We ended the day with a dinner up at Huset, the most northerly restaurant with a Michelin star.  We ate scallops and reindeer with Roland and Anders as well as a seed scientist from University of Arizona who was in town to deposit their collection of desert legume seeds from around the world.  What an amazing day.

Other Travel Notes:
Our last day here we finally got an opening in the weather.  We arranged a guided “skooter” (snowmobile) tour and our original plan was to visit the Russian coal outpost of Barentsburg, but after talking to some folks we switched it over to Temple Fjord.  I cannot recommend touring Svalbard this way enough.  We even saw the direct sun for the first time since our arrival when out on the fjord.  Be prepared for cold unlike anything you have ever experienced. Under the thick “skooter suit,” boots and helmet loaned to me by the guide I wore: expedition weight base layers, a complete down suit, a fleece, two pairs of thick socks, a neck gator and a balaclava.  I still got chilled to the point of numbness.  Any small chink in your armor, and the wind augmented by 50km/hr on the scooter cuts right to your bones.  We encountered a dutch two masted sail boat that purposefully traps itself in the sea ice each year there.  They operate it as a kind of outback adventure hotel.  Do not miss touring these outer areas, they are spectacular.

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Some notes about clothing.  The Norwegian tradition of removing your “outside shoes” is honored almost everywhere on Svalbard.  Bring snow boots that are easily removable, and carry some slippers or flip flops around with you so you don’t end up in your socks everywhere.  The other pro-tip is to bring a pair of ski goggles with clear lenses (not dark tinted as you wont be able to see).  Even if you are walking 500 yards, you will be glad you did in a snow storm.  As you might expect bring lots of down, fleece and gore-tex layers.  Neck gators, balaclavas, mittens and glove liners are also a must.  It can rain, snow, blow 40 mph, and then turn to sunshine all within an hour.  Headlamp and even a little red flashing jogging light is also a great idea for walking around after dark (eg. after 3pm).

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There are some excellent eating and drinking establishments on Svalbard.  The Michelin starred Huset up high in the valley is astonishingly good, (but pricey) and includes a wine list of over 1100 titles.  Also the pub in town next to the market has one of the largest single malt whiskey collections in all of Europe, not to be missed.  You should also stop by the Svalbard Museum, it has won several well earned exhibit design awards.  Likely one of the most interesting and informative small museums I have ever been to.

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A general note that if coming in winter (which I do recommend) that you put at least a day or two of float in your schedule.  While you can do most things even in the worst weather here, it seems a bit silly to tour the fjords when you have 20 feet of visibility.  Also note that there are 4 months of the year where there it basically as dark as night.  We had plenty of indirect light on our trip at the end of February.

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Living and travel costs in Scandinavia are expensive, but Svalbard is even more so.  Pretty much everything aside from water, reindeer, and polar bears has to be imported by air to Svalbard.  A personal pizza and drink can easily run $20-30, a simple dinner for two and a couple beers can come in well over a $100.  Simple accommodations even in the slow season are hard to book and expect to pay over $150-300/night.  The Polarrigg was nice as they have a full kitchen for guest use, and Mary-Anne let us use her vehicle several times at no charge.  There is a Radisson which is very central, a huge benefit as its a very short walk to most local services (you can walk from the Rig as well but it’s about 1/4 mile in often bad weather).  The funny thing though is some things cost less than on the mainland because of the unique tax status of Svalbard.  Alcohol is much cheaper here, basically US prices.

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Like many Scandinavian and northern areas where alcoholism is rampant, the state controls the liquor stores here.  However Svalbard has the most control I have ever seen.  There is one liquor store, and each citizen’s purchases are allocated and recorded.  In addition visitors must present their plane ticket on which they write what you have bought to be sure you do not go above your personal allocation while there.  You can fly in with liquor though…

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An Update (August 02017)

Public interest in Svalbard has surged recent months. An incident from October 02016, in which the entrance to the “fail-safe” vault was breached by water brought on by unseasonably warm weather, passed with little notice at the time, but went viral in May 02017 as it became apparent that the United States would pull out of the Paris climate agreement.

“Suddenly the tidings from Svalbard were everywhere, in multiple languages, with headlines like ‘World’s ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault Has Been Breached by Climate Change,’” wrote Mallia Wollen of The New York Times in a photo essay published last month profiling Svalbard and other “doomsday vaults”that are “racing to preserve a natural order that is fast disappearing” in the epoch of the Anthropocene.

It didn’t matter that the flood happened seven months earlier, or that the seeds remained safe and dry. We had just lived through the third consecutive year of the highest global temperatures on record and the lowest levels of Arctic ice; vast swaths of permafrost were melting; scientists had recently announced that some 60 percent of primate species were threatened with extinction. All these facts felt like signposts to an increasingly hopeless future for the planet. And now, here was a minifable suggesting that our attempts to preserve even mere traces of the bounty around us might fall apart, too.

Outlets such as the Washington Post followed with articles that attempted to calm the hysteria, with headlines like “Don’t Panic: Humanity’s ‘Doomsday’ Seed Vault is Probably Still Safe.” As Alexander Rose notes in his trip report above, scientists have known about the water-and-freeze thaw issues at Svalbard since it opened in 02008. Cary Fowler, one of the creators of the vault, told Popular Science that “the tunnel was never meant to be watertight at the front, because we didn’t think we would need that. What happens is, in the summer the permafrost melts, and some water comes in, and when it comes in, it freezes. It doesn’t typically go very far.” Fowler followed with an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air last month. While he didn’t discuss the breach, he explored many of the “conspiracy theories” and public misperceptions surrounding the vault.

  • Cary Fowler’s book, Seeds On Ice, was published in September 02016.

10×10,000

Posted on Friday, November 12th, 02010 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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bunker

CNN is running a story on the 100,000 year Finnish nuclear storage bunker.  I hope to see this at some point, I love it when people do projects that make our 10,000 year project seem short sighted…

In Finland they believe they have found a [nuclear waste] solution, with the world’s first permanent nuclear-waste repository — “Onkalo” — a huge system of underground tunnels that is being hewn out of solid rock and must last at least 100,000 years.

Work on the concept behind the facility commenced in 1970s and the repository is expected to be backfilled and decommissioned in the 2100s. None of the 40 people working on the facility today will live to see it completed.   [read complete story]

Thanks to Kevin Berry and @jetjocko for sending this my way.

The Mormon Vaults

Posted on Monday, April 9th, 02007 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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On January 2nd of 02007 Stewart Brand and I stepped into the cool deep past and unknown future of who begat who.

Entering the Mormon Vaults.  Stewart Brand in center

Entering the Mormon Vaults. Stewart Brand in center

(picture: the granite genealogical vaults)

Since I began working on the 10,000 Year Clock project, and associated Library projects here at Long Now almost a decade ago, I have heard cryptic references to this archive. We have visited the nuclear waste repositories, historical sites, and many other long term structures to look for inspiration. However we had never found a way to see this facility. This is the underground bunker where the Mormons keep their genealogical backup data, deep in the solid granite cliffs of Little Cottonwood Canyon, outside Salt Lake City. UT.

The Church has been collecting genealogical data from all the sources it can get its hands on, from all over the world, for over 100 years. They have become the largest such repository, and the data itself is open to anyone who uses their website, or comes to their buildings in downtown Salt Lake City.

However they dont do public tours of the Granite Vaults where all the original microfilm is kept for security and preservation reasons. Since Stewart had recently given a talk at Brigam Young University we were able to request access, and the Church graciously took us out to lunch and gave us a tour.

(more…)

Yucca Mountain’s Future

Posted on Sunday, March 3rd, 02002 by Peter Schwartz
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This article was written by Peter Schwartz for Red Herring’s 02002 Scenarios issue. This is the original un-edited piece.

Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada is more a ridge than a mountain. It slowly rises from a height of four thousand feet to six thousand feet along its’ length of six miles. On February 28 seven colleagues of mine from the Board and staff of The Long Now Foundation rode in an open train into one of the biggest holes in the world bored into the face of Yucca Mountain. Beginning at the north portal of a five-mile long C shaped tunnel the train carried us about a mile and half into Yucca Mt. In 1997 the 25-foot diameter borer machine emerged from the face of the mountain to open the other end of the tunnel three miles south of the north portal. For most of its length the tunnel is about a thousand feet beneath the summit of the mountain and even more important a thousand feet above the water table. That’s important because, of course, this tunnel in Yucca Mountain is where the United States government is intending to store the nation’s high level nuclear waste for the next ten thousand years and beyond.

 

The question of the future of Yucca Mountain has become very current because on February 14, 2002 Secretary of Energy Spencer Abrams recommended the approval of Yucca Mt to the President who acted the next day to notify the Congress of his intention to go ahead. By the time you read this it is virtually certain that the Governor of Nevada will have acted to veto the project as the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 allows him to do. Congress then has 90 session days to override the governor. The issue in the Congress will undoubtedly be highly contentious in both the Republican controlled House and the Democrat controlled Senate with the outcome not predetermined. In the end it is likely that the Congress will go along with the President because no other state want’s nuclear waste in their backyards either.

The more than five miles of tunnels, cross drifts and alcoves that have been drilled so far are really part of what is called the Exploratory Studies Facility. It is a research program, costing $8 billion so far, intended to prove the safety of the repository for ten thousand years. If it morphs into the actual nuclear waste site then they will bore another sixty miles of tunnels branching off the main one where they will actually store the hot waste. Deep in the tunnel we saw one of the current research projects designed to test the consequences of the heating that the sealed in nuclear waste will produce. In a tunnel branching several hundred feet off the main tunnel we found the last half sealed off. Peering through a very hot pane of glass we could see along row of huge heaters lined up back into the end of the tunnel. The heaters had raised the temperature in the tunnel to several hundred degrees over four and had just been turned off a few weeks ago for their four year cool down.

What’s the urgency to get Yucca Mt on line? Today the country’s 104 nuclear plants and the nuclear weapons program have produced 40, 000 metric tons of spend fuel. By 2035 it will be two and a half times that. Most of that waste is currently stored in 33 states at a few Dept. of Energy sites and at the sites of 72 nuclear power plants in what are euphemistically called “swimming pools.” These were designed as temporary storage sites where the risks of dangerous failures are increasing over time. So something must be soon with the existing waste let alone what is to come. And even if we get started now it will be 2010 before any waste goes underground. It will take that long to build out the necessary infrastructure for handling this very nasty stuff.

This is very big science and truly great engineering at the service of bad politics. At Yucca Mt we met remarkably creative people who have spent much of their working lives in very harsh conditions trying to solve one of the toughest problems we have in this country. That the problem as posed is insoluble is not their doing. Politicians on both sides of the issue, proponents and opponents of nuclear power have engaged in the politics of illusion at great cost to the American people. The opponents that cannot be realistically achieved have set a target of perfect isolation for 10,000 years. This is their way of blocking nuclear power. So the proponents in turn design a deceptive process to validate the achievement of an unattainable goal.

So what are the options? We can leave them where scattered around the country in temporary facilities. This has very high risks of something wrong and no one finds it acceptable. We could recycle the fuel for reuse. So far, however, cost, its own environmental problems and most of all, the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation, have stopped nuclear fuel reprocessing. Most current process for recycling nuclear waste yields plutonium that can be used for weapons.

Or as currently planned we can store somewhere for along time. That means Yucca Mt or somewhere else. No one wants nuclear fuel around but Yucca Mt has a few advantages. It sits at the edge of the Nevada Nuclear weapons testing site. Shortly after clearing the gate of the site if instead of turning left toward Yucca Mt we had turned right we would have encountered dozens of sites of nuclear weapons test both above ground and underground. As it was we crossed Jackass Flats where we tested a nuclear powered rocket motor in the late fifties and early sixties. This isn’t prime development real estate. Indeed some hint of the local attitude is the fact that there are two prisons on the 100-mile drive out from Las Vegas.

There are several possible scenarios for the future of Yucca Mt. The opponents could successfully block it indefinitely. It is not too hard to imagine opponents lying across the railroad tracks as the nuclear waste trains make their way to Nevada. It ends up like some other federal energy related projects, never being used. Something else would have to come along, like cheap safe recycling to make this an enduring scenario. Eventually you have to clean up the local mess one way or the other.

Of course, we could put the waste into Yucca Mt and remains their uneventfully for tens of thousands of years stretching on indefinitely into the future. However it is not impossible that something goes wrong relatively soon, say in the next thousand years. Perhaps the heat and the radioactivity lead to the breakdown of the storage vessels soon along with more rapid intrusion of water into the repository could lead to the poisoning of the aquifer. This would lead to big regrets.

Or as I think most likely we will put it in and take it out. There is likely no better answer in the short run. But I think we will be come so concerned about the consequences of burning hydrocarbons, especially the impact on climate change that we will want to revive nuclear power. We may come to want the usable fuel buried in the waste. The technology for fuel reprocessing and for nuclear plants themselves are both likely to improve dramatically in the future. We just don’t when. There are no risk free answers. But it appears that the balance of risks and the least regrets scenario is to store the waste at Yucca Mt and invest in better re-cycling technology to create future options for our children.

-Peter Schwartz 3/3/02002

Visiting Petra

Posted on Wednesday, February 10th, 01999 by Stewart Brand
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The Siq at Petra

The Siq at Petra

Long Now researchers Danny Hillis, Ryan Phelan, and I left the Davos conference a day early to get more time in Jordan.  The morning of Feb. 2 we left Amman in a van with a driver and a smart black-leather-jacketed guide (Ridhi), headed south toward Petra.

First stop was an old church in Madaba with a stunning wall-to-wall floor mosaic map of the Holy Land preserved from the 5th Century AD by being overlaid by later floors.  It demonstrated that maps are a universal language.  You didn’t have to read the Greek to recognize the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Jericho, Jerusalem, etc—represented not only positionally but in cartoon form (palm trees for Jericho).

The mosic map at the church in Madaba

The mosic map at the church in Madaba

Thence to nearby Mount Nebo, where Moses supposedly saw the promised land across the Jordan valley, and died.  More ancient church floor mosaics, too grandly symbolic to decode.

And on to an unpromising-looking crusader castle at Kerak.  It turned out to have levels within levels of spacious undergound passageways, vast and potent.  Danny explained why it met his dream ideas of a castle, whereas European castles always disappoint him (too small, for one thing).  Stone archways, narrow stone stairways, dramatic pools of light from high overhead openings to the sky—this is a mythic vocabulary.

A couple hours blasting across the bleak desert plateau of Jordon, and so to bed at the excellent Movenpick Hotel right at the entrance to Petra. (Mentioned here as recommendation to other travelers.  We also recommend the Guiding Star agency in Amman, who did as well for us as they did for Doug and Tomi a few weeks before.)

We explored Petra for two days, entranced.  As high as the reputation of Petra is, the reality surpasses it.  The great postcard images of the Treasury, the Monastery, the water channels in the Siq (approach canyon) do not convey the main events of the experience, which are:  the sequence of arrival, the overpowering geology (endless towering convoluted rocks), the enormous scale (hundreds of monumental-geological tombs going on for nmiles), and how manifestly yet to be discovered most of the city is.

The Treasury at Petra

The Treasury at Petra

Design ideas for the desert Clock spoke from every vista and detail.

The approach takes almost an hour on foot.  Before you enter the Siq, a few scattered rock tombs introduce the terms of monumental Nabatean discourse—huge cubical forms cut out of vivid sandstone, cliff faces sculpted smooth and vertical with spare bas relief motifs of five ascending steps and Greek-column forms, and abyssal black tomb openings.

Thus prepped and taut with anticipation, you enter the Siq—as narrow, high, extravagant, and nervous-making as the slot canyons of the American southwest.  You enter from its top, so the walk is gently downhill—easy, inviting.  It it both a wild canyon and profoundly civilized.  On each side of the narrow flood-sculpted passageway (sometimes 15 feet wide, 200 feet deep) is a waist-high ancient water channel, carved swervingly along the cliff curves.  One was for agriculture, the other for people and animals.
It is conspicuously brilliant hydrology.

There begin to be architectural elements—carved niches almost worn away, bench forms, a watering trough for animals, and—recently discovered—the feet and legs of a realistically sculpted man leading two camels down the Siq, just larger than life size.

You keep anticipating the famous first glimpse of the Treasury framed at the end of the Siq.  When it comes, your camera leaps into your hand. Okay!  Consummation!  Then the surprises begin.

The scale is wrong.  The Treasury is as beautifully shaped, well preserved, and sandy pink as expected, but it is not jewel-like.  It towers WAY up over you.  A day of neck-craning begins.  Inside the large entrance is a vast, perfect cube of space inside the mountain.  The ceiling is not arched but absolutely horizontal, 50 feet by 50 feet.  (If they can do that with sandstone and have it hold up nicely for over 2,000 years, we can do it with limestone.)

The Treasury is amazing, a revelation.  Without the Siq it would be merely impressive.  Danny may have some things to say about the lessons of the Siq.

The city begins, first a lengthy necropolis of tombs in the widening canyon, then signs of the once-living metropolitan area of 30,000 people. The tombs vie with each other for massiveness, reaching far up the mountains on each side, crowding and overlapping—a teeming, overpopulated necropolis.  (Lesson: nobody should be buried at the desert Clock, because once that begins, in time the dead take over.)

The fantastic natural rock landscape is so extensively carved, and so much of the carving is so eroded that it looks natural, your eyes can’t stop examining every rock surface near and far, parsing artificial from natural and delighting the more in both.  All is gaudy.  All is subtle.  (All is Gaudi.)

There are amenities, provided by resident Bedouin children and adults—coffee, camel rides in the canyon, burro rides to the peaks, some books (purveyed by a New Zealand lady who married into the Petra Bedouin). Past ever grander tombs, a Roman colonnade, a Byzantine church (discovered in 1992), a huge free-standing temple, is lunch and a museum.

Pluckily, we climbed another spectacular canyon, steep this time, to the high and distant Monastery tomb.  In the distance on a high peak we could see the modest, mysterious shrine to Arum, brother of Moses, said to be buried there.  Danny liked the remote look of it.  Ryan flirted with an entire campfire of dashing Bedouin men keeping warm from the chill drizzle.

It was a long three mile walk back to the hotel.

The first day was heroic, the second easy and contemplative—hanging out with Petra.  It rewards that (and the Clock should).  Ryan gleefully rode a camel, not just for photos but to get around.  We sat in the high tombs and admired the view from them.  We found tombs that scared us off (“Too deep, too dark, too many buried”).  We clambered and explored some of the countless, countless stone-cut steps that ascended everywhere.  Steps in living rock are an invitation and a joy.

We drank coffee, watched the passing show from the perspective of the Bedouin residents, and waxed philosophical.  There were layers and layers of nuances to notice.  Petra let us know it was inexhaustible.

Strolling now, we eased back to the hotel for a drive to “Little Petra” a few miles away.  It was an ideal finale, because that little canyon was the fountainhead of the whole Nabatean complex—a hydrological masterpiece of water channels, stone stairways, huge echoing cisterns, and dwelling caves. Petra is humanity’s greatest hymn of water and rock.

It came to life that evening at the hotel with an hour’s conversation with a Mr. Hani Falahat, from the Petra Trust and Department of Antiquities. The lead researcher of Petra’s hydrology, he has also been proving that the local Bedouin clans in the region are the direct descendants of the builders of Petra.  He himself is one.  We were having coffee with a Nabatean.