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Learning from Nuclear Waste Disposal

How do you arrive at a robust decision that will last over long periods of time and generations into the future? How do you so do especially when the problem is technically complex with many ecological, social and political dilemmas-- when intervening factors like electoral cycles, quicksilver technological changes, shifting values, and changes in our collective knowledge and know-how can change the problem landscape materially

This was the major question facing us in a fascinating project on the Future of Nuclear Waste which I helped facilitate last year whilst still at GBN for a Canadian agency, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization(NWMO), which was set up a few years ago to break a ten year impasse on this political intractable and technically complex issue. The CBC radio program, Quirks and Quarks, featured the topic of nuclear waste and aspects of our work—snippets of the scenarios we developed and interviews of key players we worked with across the major perspectives. So a year later, listening to this radio program (which covers the issue very well) I couldn't help but reflect on this project and what I learned, especially since this is one of the many "stuck" problems facing policy-makers today -- a class of problems which we need to develop better social ingenuity to work on more effectively.

Stuck Problems, Hard Choices

As many people know, the issue of nuclear waste disposal is stuck between the horns of many seemingly irreconcilable dilemmas and tradeoffs. Apart from obvious ecological concerns and human safety issues, there are global security dimensions such as the threat of terrorists storming waste cites to pilfer spent plutonium for dirty bombs. There are also difficult technical, scientific questions about the durability of storage and future innovations like transmutation which may make spent fuel less harmful. And there are social values to consider: like what is our responsibility to future generations and communities which will be affected by nuclear waste and power? All of these dimensions add up to a complex policy problem with highly polarized views on future solutions, which in turn creates some very hard choices for policy-makers to make, choices which are paradoxically acerbated by the fact that these are important but not immediately urgent issues on the agenda. This is why no government has developed an adequate response to this problem anywhere in the world, and why many policy-makers are watching the NWMO deliberations closely.

The President of the NWMO, Liz Dowdeswell, is an interesting woman whom I really connected with. I was impressed by her wide-ranging career (under sec of the UN) but mostly for her openness and penchant for tying innovative things. So not surprisingly, she stumbled upon scenario planning and engaged GBN to develop a collaborative process for them to look at this issue through the lens of the future. Given the life cycle of spent nuclear fuel, they mandated us to develop scenarios in 25, 150, 500 and 10,000 year increments into the future. Now, in our business it's hard enough getting people to think out 5 years let alone 10,000 years! So this was a very unusual and intoxicating gig indeed. (One footnote: we learned that the original forecast of the decay rate of radioactive material, made by a man named Dr. Pickering, is about 40 years old and was rather arbitrary to begin with. The actual rate may be more like around 500+ years and varies across the different types of spent fuel. But this is highly controversial, to say the least.)


The Unboundable Future

All of us on the team, including the project leader Jay Ogilvy, one of GBN's cofounders and key codifiers of scenario planning, were somewhat intimidated by the methodological challenge of very long term foresight. The span of 10,000 years is mind-boggling to consider since this is the life cycle of civilizations. The ancient Egyptians built their pyramids anywhere between 3500 and 5000 BCE, with no living trace of that civilization. In Europe, humans were just shifting from being hunter and gathers towards agriculturalists. While it was wonderfully challenging to imagine future possibilities at this scale -- we explored how human consciousness might shift, and how global governance might evolve (or devolve) -- methodologically speaking we had to ask ourselves, was it possible to think this far ahead? Was this useful? We concluded no. Epistemologically, thinking ahead 10,000 years was impossible and the problem space unboundable; as power laws tell us, too many discontinuities are inevitable in that time frame. Even 500 years was too much. And practically speaking we felt this not useful especially since this project needed to result in some recommendations and decisions after years of political stalemate.

In any event, it was fun trying. It was a challenge to get beyond our anthropomorphic perspective and to consider history, the future, and nature as key actors in our scenarios, the foreground rather than background. Humbling indeed. The scope of this project also meant working with some fantastic minds and people, including Stewart Brand, author of the Clock of the Long Now, and Rusty Schweickart, former Apollo astronaut. It was amazing hearing Rusty talk about what it felt like to walk in space for the first time, how it completely reoriented his perception of time (and quite literally space) as he stared back at Planet Earth. After this, it was hard not to have an more integrated perspective of how the past connects to the present and future. Speaking of that, the First Nations perspective was integral to this process as well. (In Canada, thanks to our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the inclusion of minority groups like the First Nations are de rigor in most policy processes, and much more visible in public life.) It was a refreshing treat to see other ways of knowing being included in this process. And there was a practical need for as well. The First Nation practice of thinking ahead and behind 7 generations is one of the few knowledge bases we can tap for this kind of insight and know-how.

Adaptive Solutions

As the radio program discusses, there are about 12-15 various solutions on the table for nuclear waste disposal. These range from deep geological storage in the ground or at sea (currently illegal), recycling of waste (like the French do), exporting waste (like the Japanese do), or preserving the status quo by keeping the stuff stored in more accessible sites or "swimming pools" (like Canada does.) Yet how one arrives at viewing these solutions cleave around two questions:

1) Do we trust the judgment of our experts and technical capabilities today to handle nuclear waste safely and durably for thousands of years into the future?

2) Or should we arrive at an incremental solution given all the many uncertainties embedded in this problem, and trust in the stability of our social institutions to handle this decision once we have better knowledge, tools and capabilities to do so?

The people who answer yes to the first question (and/or no to the second question) tend to favour irretrievable deep geological storage. They fear that no social institution will last long enough to handle this issue effectively. It's best to just seal the nasty stuff away forever, so we can't screw it up further. They also argue that we may lose our technical ability to store spent fuel, especially if the world does go to hell in a hand-basket (and quickly), like it has in the past. Procrastination, putting off this decision, is not doing any favours to future generations. Most scientists, experts in the field, and industry representatives favour this approach.

The other view, mostly argued by environmentalists and community activists, say that there are just too many uncertainties involved to make an irreversible choice today. We just don't know enough about deep geological disposal to trust that it will be effective over the long haul. And morally speaking, how can we put this in the backyard of any one community? Also, with all of the technological advances in the last 50 years, the techno-optimists in this camp argue that breakthroughs are highly likely, that is, new processes that can make nuclear waste safe or safer. Another view argues that perhaps nuclear waste might be a resource in the future, something we may want to mine in world where energy supplies are scarce. Lastly, imagine that our civilization disappears; that a new dark ages descends and we forget that highly dangerous fuel is stored in the earth. How will we communicate this to future generations? Ironically speaking, any signage would only increase curiosity and encourage exploration. What a terrible surprise they will get when they realize the past just poisoned them. Given these uncertainties, this camp favors a form of storage that can be accessed and monitored over time, not something irretrievable and irreversible.

Approach #1 is where the US landed. Deep geological disposal was chosen with the Yucca Mountain in Nevada being the trial cite for nuclear waste storage. It looked like Canada was going in a similar direction. After many studies, an expert consensus emerged favouring the Canadian Shield as a good place for disposal. That was over ten years ago. Interest groups have since pushed back on this, arguing that the public was never properly consulted. The Liberal government agreed with this view, and asked industry to create the NWMO with the mandate to surface all of the options and to pay particular attention to intergenerational equity -- the buzz word that means with the interests of future generations in mind.


(Portal at Yucca Mountain.)

All of the controversy surrounding Yucca mountain also gave Canadian policy-makers some reason to pause. (Also see Wikipedia for a summary of the issue.) Fortunately we had Stewart Brand, who looked closely at this issue and visited Yucaa Mountain with the Board of the Long Now Foundation, to give us his perspective on the lessons to be learned from this experience, a cautionary tale that stuck with me. Like in Canada, the US government mandated experts to play out various scenarios 10,000 years into the future in order to figure out the best solution for waste disposal. Of course this proved to be an inappropriate planning horizon for the same reasons we've discussed -- it's just unboundable and thus not useful-- but the US spent billions trying to do the impossible anyway, just to satisfy regulations. This highlights a central flaw within our current governance model: the danger of asking linear questions and applying linear approaches to non-linear problems. Indeed, the trouble with planning is that you have to come out with a plan, a plan which requires implementation and actions which may look like the right thing to do at the time, but which proves to be flawed as we learn more about the problem and as conditions change.

Another conceptual problem with the nuclear waste debate is that policy-makers failed to recognize the difference between (a) the time horizon where danger exist and (b) the time horizon where planning is possible. The two things have never been decoupled. With emotionally charged issues like nuclear power, it's also foolish to think that analytical approaches will suffice even if people think they are being "rational". All importnat issues facing the future have a "non-rational" aspect to it, which is why it's so easy to overlearn lessons of the past in a way that precludes new thinking and learning in the future. Generals are always fighting the last war and specters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl still colour our thinking today.

So with problems like nuclear waste, long term planning is intellectually bankrupt and structurally flawed, a waste of time and money. But long term thinking is still a good idea. Rather than a plan, it is the process that matters—a process that manages a dynamic situation not solution. The key is to develop a savvy, adaptive management system which learns over time, remains flexible to changing conditions, and keeps options open for the future, instead narrowing them, which deep disposal does (but not without certain risks.) This argues for an incremental approach; that is, thinking ahead in smaller chunks of time, say 25 and 50 years instead of 10,000. This also argues for innovations in governance which enable the handing over of responsibility regardless of the whims of electoral cycles, institutional agendas, and so on. The US Constitution, for instance, is cybernetically sound and designed to be self-correcting over time. We need more of these kinds of governance innovations. Brand, in a moment of serious play, asked us to imagine the creation of a special nuclear waste priesthood, dedicated people who would take on the sacred duty of guarding these hazardous materials and handing down knowledge from generation to generation until a safe solution was invented. Given all of the flaws and systemic biases towards the short term in our institutions, this is not such a crazy idea. Weirder things have happened.

While the NWMO is still a year away from arriving at their recommendations, and I have no special insight into what they will recommend, so far it looks like Approach #2 might be the most persuasive one. It also looks like social values are winning the battle against conventional expert thinking and the push to make a permanent decision versus a temporary one. (If a traditional consulting firm was hired for this project, I'm sure they would have driven the process to come up with a single answer versus a process, an action-oriented pathology particularly rife amongst the professional services industry.) For instance, opinion polls conducted by the NWMO show that the public doesn't trust the conclusions of scientists and experts on this matter. I knows this must vex the scientists immensely. In interviewing them, I heard many statements bemoaning the ignorance of the public. Never mind the fact that it was the scientists who begat this problem in the first place with the advent of nuclear power.

This tension between the public and experts is a crucial one to watch, something I saw repeatedly in my DARPA work and consistently throughout my practice touching thorny science-based issues. While part of me sympathezies with the scientists, more than often the wisdom of the crowds is wiser under certain conditions. I also think many of problems today are the unintended consequences of technical fixes to adaptive problems. Purely technical approaches bound problems too narrowly, ignore or downplay critical uncertainties and the complex interaction of other non-measurable variables (social, ecological, political) across different temporal and spatial scales. This partially explains why experts are notoriously bad at predicting the future, and why slower and broader deliberations are so important. In the meantime, we will be living with the consequences of top-down expert choices for some time now. This is locked into the future. So I think a plausible scenario dynamic to watch for— a prediction so to speak— will involve further backlash and blowback against experts, especially if things like climate change and (under)development issues continue to go sour. People may use media like the Web to start organizing in a bottom-up fashion and hold accountable technocrats and scientists. The wisdom of the crowds may turn mob-like if we're not careful, if we don't engage in widespread dialogue soon with these colliding perspectives.

Overall, however, the message of the NWMO experience is hopeful. I think a better future depends on more processes like these, ones that that try to meld all perspectives and give equal weight to intergenerational equity, other ways of knowing, and the long-term health of our natural infrastructure. Perhaps the positive unintended consequence of nuclear waste will create a demand for better custodianship of the future and long term responsibility? While this is unlikely to be the case until it becomes more urgent and unavoidable, the argument for sticking to narrow, expert-based judgments just doesn't hold water anymore, a legacy of dead-end Cartesian thinking. I also think this process is an example of a new kind of policy making—adapative policy-making—which is surely the kind of social ingenuity we need to manage successfully the many "stuck" problems ahead. While I can't describe this very well now, I have a hunch this is exactly the kind of work my practice will be full of in the years to come. So stay tuned for more learning on that front.

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Super-conductor materials form magnetic coils for the accelleration.

A long horizontal, ground-based rail is constructed in a sparsely populated area.

The rail arcs upward at the departure end.

The power driving the accellerator rail is (of course) derived from nuclear sources.

We launch the spent fuel into deep space.

End of problem dealing with the nuclear waste.

Responsible estimates show that the odds are trillions and trillions to one that no contact at all with another body shall ever occur.

There is a lot of room out there.

Yes, just launch the stuff into space. Get it out of our solar system entirely.

It's cheap power. The World needs it.

Mike Warner, inventor, great-grandfather, small business owner, honorably-discharged U.S.A.F. veteral, voter, tax-payer, concerned citizen.


Posted by: Mike Warner on 2 Oct 04



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