Tag Archives: Long Now
On Fukushima, Nuclear “Waste” and “Spent” Fuel

On Fukushima, Nuclear “Waste” and “Spent” Fuel

A couple of useful resources, of continual relevance, relating to the Fukushima situation in Japan, that might serve as an inoculant against the deleterious effects of more convenient/digestible sources):

MIT’s Nuclear Science & Engineering department has a wonderful blog on Fukushima/Fukushima-related items.

Jeffrey Lewis at the wonderful and recommended Armscontrolwonk (he is the original/eponymous wonk, the Ur-wonk there) has been posting daily updates from Japan’s Federation of Electric Power Companies.

Areva has a quite decent PPT rundown of the chain of events (note: Areva is one of the world’s largest nuclear energy conglomerates–they work primarily in Europe but do also operate in the US), with plenty of images.

DigitalGlobe-AFP-Getty Images

Stewart Brand on Nuclear Energy
I’d been intending to link to to a FP interview with Stewart Brand on nuclear energy, and paused to think of some clever way to refer to his hoary nerd-hippie credentials, but just realized FP did this for me when they referenced the seminal “Whole Earth Catalog” he started as a “hippie omnium gatherum and Boomer cultural touchstone”. Relieved of that burden, I’ll simply include the link and refer back to an earlier post on an event hosted by Brand’s Long Now Foundation.

Since I seem to make a habit of shilling for The Long Now, one of my favorite sessions was a debate between Peter Schwartz and Ralph Kavanagh on nuclear power.

Nuclear “Waste” and “Spent” Fuel
From the parent of Union of Concerned Scientists FAQs on Japan Nuclear Crisis:

Spent fuel pools actually pose more of a risk in the United States because the pools here contain more fuel than do those in Japan. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences even reprimanded U.S. plants for ignoring the hazards of spent fuel, but the warnings continue to fall on deaf ears.

This could be a lesson on unintended consequences: one reason US plants have to hoard so much is that commercial reprocessing used to be illegal (made so by President Carter, following a Presidential Directive by Ford). While Reagan reversed the ban in 1981, the nascent reprocessing industry never recovered. Like the nuclear plants themselves, reprocessing is expensive (relative–apparently, so far–to the risks of storage and the cost of “fresh” uranium). Also, another “alternative” to spent fuel pools is long-term storage–Yucca Mountain in Nevada was the place where this would ostensibly happen, but that political albatross seemed to shut down more discussion than it provoked, often invoking false dilemmas broader than the core issues.

I bring this up because so much public and political discussion concerns the manner of storage, and methods such as dry cask storage versus the Yucca Mountain controversies, but there’s less discussion of reprocessing. So much uranium remains (90+ %) after fuel rods are retired that both the words, “spent” and “waste” are misnomers. While better and more reliable storage matters, it is also possible that we could be storing less and putting the remainder to use–reprocessing can not only reduce volume but can recover large amounts of “usable” uranium (which is, of course, a finite natural resource).

Now, the proliferation risk of reprocessing is considerable, as reprocessing uranium also separates out masses of “usable” plutonium. This is the main way North Korea, for instance, gets its plutonium (by the way, lest you think my defense of reprocessing excessive, Fukushima actually included one reactor fueled by plutonium created through reprocessing). Reprocessing itself can have both legitimate and nefarious objectives–this is why you might hear about monitoring for diversion of material. One might wonder whether the fact that bad actors do it for bad reasons mean it shouldn’t be done for any reason. There is, considering that point, the commitment of the nuclear-armed states under Article VI of the NPT to pursue disarmament in “good faith”–perhaps that’s a reason not to reprocess… I jest really–to continue pursuing that line leads to setting up phantom straw men just to tear them down.

Back to unintended consequences: I’m concerned that Three Mile Island (and “The China Syndrome”) casts such a long shadow, and that every other nuclear event–relevant or not–relevant or not–(most notoriously The Bomb before, or Chernobyl after) serves too well to buttress it, that the scale or scope of technologies/R&D that might have decreased cost, increased safety and efficiency, etc. that decades of neglect in the name of security might have been the result. A spectacular accident occurs, confirmation bias is invoked on both “sides” of the issue, the effects subside, we survive and forget.


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Tintinnabulation 02010

Last night I witnessed two “performances”: Longplayer and Long Conversation. The scare quotes pertain mainly to the former; an audience–certainly not a contiguous one–isn’t a key driver.



Longplayer is a one thousand year long musical composition. It began playing at midnight on the 31st of December 1999, and will continue to play without repetition until the last moment of 2999, at which point it will complete its cycle and begin again. Conceived and composed by Jem Finer, it was originally produced as an Artangel commission, and is now in the care of the Longplayer Trust.

A couple things are especially striking, beyond the slowing of thought as we entrain to the interference of the bells:

  • The movement of the performers themselves from station to station and the eventual “shift change”
  • The score, or rather each performer’s tracking of it (they carry stopwatches and move a peg from position to position in a series of divots along the table.

On the score itself, you can read a summary, but this graphical version is a nice visualization of several unique data on the same visual framework:

Long Conversation

In short, it’s a 6-hour “relay” conversation; each interlocutor talks for about 40 minutes, overlapping with another 40-minute speaker staggered every 20 minutes or so (so each speaker has two partners). Topics a conversational hybrid of the background of each interlocutor and long-term thinking.

The Long Now

There’s plenty to cover here outside of recognizing the name as Brian Eno’s coinage: the purpose, the clock, the talks, Long Bets, etc.; I’ll have to do so later. It’ll have to suffice to leave you with an anecdote from founder Stewart Brand’s (The Whole Earth Catalog) book, How Buildings Learn. This is one of those times that I don’t care whether/to what degree it’s apocryphal.

The anthropologist/philosopher Gregory Bateson used to tell a story:

New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top, yes? These might be two feet square, forty-five feet long.

A century ago, so I am told, some busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because where would they get beams of that caliber nowadays?
One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be on College lands some oak. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years and asked him about oaks.
And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

A nice story. That’s the way to run a culture.
Every time I’ve retold this story since I first heard it from Gregory in the 1970s, someone always asks, “What about for the next time? Has a new grove of oaks been planted an protected?” I forwarded the question to the authorities at New College—the College Archivist and the Clerk of Works. They had no idea.

Oh, one last thing. The exhortation here amuses me greatly:

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