EPA Expected to Issue Million-Year-Long Regulation

Yucca Mountain Range

hide captionThe Yucca Mountain,Nevada is located approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It is the proposed site for a vast nuclear waste repository.

Civilian Radioactive Waste Management / Department of Energy

Scroll down to see how graphic designers imagine images that will convey "danger" for the next million years.

In the coming weeks, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to issue a regulation that will extend 1 million years into the future.

The timescale of the regulation, which deals with the disposal of power plant nuclear waste, is unprecedented territory for the EPA.

"This will be the only rule that applies for such a long duration into the future," says Elizabeth Cotsworth, the EPA director of radiation and indoor air. "Most EPA rules apply for the foreseeable future — five or six generations. This rule is for basically 25,000 generations."

In 2002, after Congress and President Bush approved plans to store power plant nuclear waste material inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the EPA was placed in charge of laying out the repository's building codes, designed to last 10,000 years.

"We thought that [10,000 years] was generally the limit of scientific certainty in our ability to predict with confidence," says Cotsworth.

But opponents of the Yucca Mountain plan filed a lawsuit which argued that the regulation did not extend far enough into the future. After the courts agreed, the EPA extended the regulation by 100 times, to 1 million years.

The agency doesn't know if there will be anyone to protect 1 million years from now. No one does.

One way to get a sense for what can change over a million years is to look back into the past. Scientists do know that life has changed dramatically over the past million years. For example, our ancestors had skulls that were a third smaller that ours. They had not harnessed fire or started to make clothing. Neanderthals were still in the future.

Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, says not to underestimate what can happen in a million years.

"A million years ago is an exceptionally long time," he says. "Even though I study [the time period] 1 million years ago and what [that] means, it takes me time to get my head around it."

A Canticle for Yucca Mountain

Bunnies sitting in front of a radioactive nuclear sign.

hide captionA winning design from the Desert Space Foundation's contest to design a universal warning sign for the Yucca Mountain site (more designs below.)

Brandon Alms/Desert Space Foundation

In Walter M. Miller's post-nuke sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, there are no books. Literate people are killed. And underground monks work to preserve what little pre-war knowledge they can salvage, without knowing what the knowledge actually means.

The monks' illuminated manuscripts, we learn, are actually blueprints for materials used to make nuclear bombs. There's no way for the monks to know that their saved traces of civilization will, most likely, destroy civilization again.

The idea that the dangers of nuclear material might be lost on future descendants is not just limited to apocalyptic science fiction stories. It also worries those who live in Nevada near Yucca Mountain, the site where Congress and President Bush tentatively approved plans to store power-plant nuclear waste for the next 1 million years.

Josh Abbey, the director of the Desert Space Foundation in Nevada, says most people are not aware of the consequences of nuclear waste.

"The decision to place the waste [in Yucca Mountain] will impact humans 1 million years in the future," he says. "To place that kind of responsibility forward, I can't think of anything more audacious."

In 2002, Abbey created a design competition to find a permanent warning sign for the proposed nuclear waste site. The purpose of the competition, he says, is to find a universal warning sign which conveys that the deposit is highly dangerous. One caveat: the symbols have to work even if language or communication breaks down in the future. And the design has to last at least 10,000 years.

"Imagine," Abbey says, "that in the future, whoever's here doesn't communicate the way we do."

Language and symbols do change over time. A report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) says that half of the world’s 6,800 languages are in danger of disappearing over the next century. Add the fact that humans are naturally curious creatures who like to explore unknown artifacts (Egyptian pyramids ring a bell?) and you have a potentially deadly situation unfolding eons away. Abbey worries that a universal warning sign could actually encourage exploration.

Still, he says, the government needs to design an effective warning symbol that will last far beyond current generations. In the 2002 Universal Warning Sign competition, the submissions were broken down into two categories: practical, technical solutions and sociological or philosophical statements about the futility of the exercise. Below, just some of the designs submitted in the competition:

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