Tue July 29, 2014
The Yucca Mountain Hangover
Hey! Want to have a nice chat about Yucca Mountain? Of course you don’t! You’re over it. You’ve had enough. You’re not ready yet. You’re still savoring your luxurious sigh of relief after the Obama administration wrenched the Yucca spigot to OFF, and you really, really just want to fast-forward through this nebulous, woozy denouement we’re living in now, the age of the Great Yucca Hangover.
You may be done with Yucca Mountain, but, oh, it’s not done with us. Don’t worry (at least not yet!), this isn’t a blog post about some fresh and disheartening reversal in the decades-long saga that sees the high-level nuclear waste dump rearing its ugly half-life again. I’m referring instead to a more metaphorical kind of radioactivity: the ways in which the would-be Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, in all the troubling majesty of its thorny hypotheticals — an engineered underground nuclear graveyard expected to exist many millenia into and perhaps beyond human history — continues to force us to grapple with tricky questions about human language and culture. For instance, after we build a burial site capable of containing high-level nuclear waste, here or elsewhere, how do we warn the future? Indeed, the nuclear cemetery that never quite was has borne fascinating fruit.
One of the latest entries is this academic paper slated to be published in Cornell University’s Science & Technology Studies journal, titled “Adjudicating Deep Time: Revisiting the United States’ High-Level Nuclear Waste Repository Project at Yucca Mountain.” Reams have been blogged and written about the challenges — some would say absurd, imagination-staggering challenges — of building a DANGER! KEEP OUT! sign that could last, both physically and semantically, through thousands of years of erosive weather, natural cataclysms, geopolitical upheaval, human evolution, morphing language and who knows what else (alien colonization? hyper-evolved cats? hostile global AI takeover by a sentient Facebook in the year 4039?). This paper (warning: at times, it’s a dense, punishing bog of opaque academese) considers the superhuman intellectual acrobatics required to impose today’s accepted notions of personhood to tomorrow and beyond. Or, as the paper’s author Vincent F. Ialenti writes, “As such, an anthropologist might see the Yucca Mountain Project as just another site in which humans have drawn upon fragments of the past to reinvent them in the present to serve new purposes in new contexts.” In the legalistic regime of YuccaThink, today's person is bureaucratically recast into the future-flung unknown as a “reasonably maximally exposed individual.” The tenuousness of such constructions is laughable; you can almost read them as exasperated code words for a gasping admission of “We don’t know!” Well, it would be laughable if it weren’t utterly headache-inducing — another symptom of the Great Yucca Hangover.