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If environmentalism is protecting the Earth for future generations, then the federal government is now attempting to impose that protection about as far forward as you can imagine. The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to issue a rule that extends one million years into the future.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The new rule deals with the disposal of long-lived nuclear waste from power plants. Even the EPA acknowledges this time scale is new territory. Elizabeth Cotsworth directs the Office of Radiation and Indoor Air at the agency.

Ms. ELIZABETH COTSWORTH (EPA): This is totally unprecedented. Most EPA rules apply for perhaps five or six generations into the future. With this rule, we will be basically covering 25,000 generations.

KESTENBAUM: In 2002, Congress and President Bush approved plans to store the nuclear waste from power plants inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The EPA is responsible for laying out what amounts to a building code for the repository. Initially, the EPA did not want to deal with the million-year standard. It first tried 10,000 years.

Ms. COTSWORTH: We thought that that was generally the limit of scientific certainty in our ability to predict with confidence.

KESTENBAUM: The rule issued in 2001 said that the repository had to hold up well enough so that if a farmer living nearby 10,000 years from now drinks the groundwater every day, he should get less than a few chest x-rays' worth of radiation in a year. But opponents of Yucca Mountain filed a lawsuit, arguing that the regulation had to extend further into the future. The courts agreed, so last year the EPA proposed this additional radiation standard that extends a hundred times further, to one million years.

But a million years is geologic time. The EPA has no idea if there will even be farmers around then to protect.

Can we do a little experiment?

Ms. COTSWORTH: Okay.

KESTENBAUM: Let's pretend we have a time machine. We go in the time machine and we go forward one million years. What do you think the world looks like?

Ms. COTSWORTH: Oh, my gosh. I don't - I don't - I would not be able to articulate what the world would look like.

KESTENBAUM: Do you think it's all cockroaches, it's people, it's robots?

Ms. COTSWORTH: I have - I've no idea.

KESTENBAUM: Who does? Well, one way to get a sense for what can change over a million years is to look back, because we have a pretty good idea for what the Earth was like a million years ago.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RICK POTTS (Smithsonian Museum of Natural History): Well, going into a time machine, it would depend upon where you landed.

KESTENBAUM: Our time traveler is Rick Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Mr. POTTS: If you were to land in East Africa...

KESTENBAUM: In East Africa, you'd see a strange creature walking on two legs.

Mr. POTTS: A part of you would think, oh my goodness, this is one of us. This is an ancestor to me. But you would also notice the beetling brow, the brow ridge and the sloping of the forehead and also a tremendous muscular build of those early humans that makes you think, I'm not quite sure I'd ever want to shake hands with this individual. We're wimps in comparison to them.

KESTENBAUM: Life changed a lot in a million years. Our ancestors had brain cases that were one-third smaller than ours. They hadn't harnessed fire or started to make clothing. Neanderthals were still in the future.

Mr. POTTS: A million years ago is an exceptionally a long time. And you know, even though I study it, I go out to Africa every summer to study one million years ago and what it means, it still takes me some time to wrap my mind around it.

KESTENBAUM: If things continue as they have, something like humans will be around in another million years. We will look different and have vastly more advanced technology. A million years ago, hand axes were all the rage. Today we have nuclear power plants and nuclear waste. Remember, the concern is that a million years from now, a farmer could drink water contaminated with radioactive waste and get cancer. But in a million years, we might have cured cancer.

Dr. PETER RAVDIN (University of Texas): Oh, I think that, yes, we will certainly have cured cancer.

KESTENBAUM: Peter Ravdin is a cancer researcher and physician with the University of Texas.

Dr. RAVDIN: Even now, the risk of dying of breast cancer in the United States is falling about two percent a year, so that suggests a timeline much shorter than a million years, it will have cured cancer.

KESTENBAUM: Ravdin feels we do have a duty to think about the long term future though. He points to the last book astronomer Carl Sagan wrote, called Demon Haunted World.

Dr. RAVDIN: Which he wrote while he was dying of cancer, unfortunately. But he's emphasized the point that there were two very different possibilities for the future. And one of them would be reflecting our better side, and one would be reflecting our worst, and that both were possible.

KESTENBAUM: The debate over the million-year standard can be seen as both. It's a testimony to our better side, a desire to protect future generations; and our worse side, a reminder that when something controversial comes up, someone will always file a lawsuit.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And then there's the question of how you tell people one million years from now that Yucca Mountain is dangerous. You can see samples of these universal warning signs at npr.org.

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