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


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.