Tuesday, February 11, 2014

You say irradiated wasteland like it is a bad thing.

An idea inspired by The Onion, built up in pub full of nerds and scientists, and brought to full in the moments before sleep.

The first thought was a fake headline for the Onion.  Climate scientists suggest nuclear war to curb the effects of global warming.
As bad ideas go it was epic, so for its entertainment value it landed on Facebook. And vanished as ideas do.  When the notion reemerged in the pub it had matured slightly.  Afterall the suggestion of actually having an nuclear war was just a bit harsh.  So the improved idea was to nuke Queen Maud Land, Antarctica.  Upon closer inspection this idea remained too flawed. Vaporizing huge volumes of ice was not desirable as water vapor is greenhouse gas.  You needed to kick up dust not sublime ice.  The resulting refinement was to blast the dry Wright valleys along the Antarctic coast, progress.

The problems with the plan were instantly obvious.  The first being the dust would settle quickly and the cooling effect would be lost with it.  Since you avoided killing large chunks of humanity with atomic fireballs the economy would have hobbled along continuing to burning stuff.  This burning stuff habit drives the current warming problems.  To make matters worse the productive Southern ocean is flooded with radioactive fallout.  It became apparent that this was being approached from the wrong angle. The time scales were too mismatched, a longer view was needed.  

  For global warming, the time scale is tens of thousands of years, between when burning stuff for everything stops, and the climate reaches equilibrium. Coincidentally a time scale similar to one of our other self made problems, nuclear waste.  Now we talk serious long term planning.

At that moment it became clear, we are treating the nuclear waste problem all wrong.  The current method, is akin to hoarding, keep it in secure locations with until it has cooled down to near background levels. Implicit in this is desire to irradiate the smallest portion of the world possible.  This is where the conventional thinking goes wrong. The problem is being looked at in isolation.  To follow this train of thought to its inevitable derailment it is worth considering the Pripyat Accidental Nature Reserve.  Better known as the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

The Exclusion zone thanks to being largely devoid of human activity is doing quite well despite its contaminants.  This is where are two waste driven problems converge, climate change and nuclear waste.  Unlike previous iterations of  this proposal the desire is not to mask the symptoms caused by our burning stuff habit, but to create and enforce isolation zones.  Spaces where climate change can be adapted to without humans adding their busy work to the mess. This is where it gets tricky, and several practical and a few ethical problems need to be sorted out. The practical problems will be addressed.

The goal of the program is not to create a lifeless wasteland, but a radiation hazard enough to scare off people and exploit the existing radiophobia. With the end product being a resilient nature preserve able to weather current and future climate changes.   Two factors come forward in is exercise, site selection and waste distribution.

An ideal site would be a basin that plays host to a key biome. The ideal basins would have expansive mid to high elevation regions to accommodate the migration to high elevations due to warming in the lowlands.  Where possible the basin's drainage should discharge directly into the ocean. This will allow the creation of a marine park in the buffer zone.  Where direct to ocean discharge is not possible the selection a tributary to a much larger river would be required to allow for quick dilution to back ground, again enabling a buffer zone.   Closed basins are undesirable, as they would only drive up the waste concentrations resulting in a unwanted dead zone.   In addition to a broad elevation range, several of the sites should be oriented along a north south axis to accommodate the migration to higher latitudes.

Waste distribution is a tricky thing.  Firstly, reprocess the fuel. There is no value in dumping fissile elements that could still provide us with energy into the environment.  After reprocessing comes packaging.  The goal being a time release system.  The waste storage bundle should be leaky enough to keep a steady flow of isotopes into the environment without instant toxicity.  The storage bundle must be robust.  The large areas involved will require distribution by way of airdrops.  A secondary consideration, but of scientific value would be to tailor the waste mix to be unique for each basin.  This would aide in animal migration studies among other things.

A few other things should be considered.  At least a few of the select basins should be productive and large enough to act as carbon sinks both in todays climate and future climates. This is a long term plan, intended to remove humans for select areas of the planet for a time greater than the current span of recorded history.  There are a few more trivial things to consider.

There are essentially no ideal sites that do not already have human populations.   Along with the ethically dubious requirement to displace people, there would also be a certain amount of cultural manipulation required to encourage a sustained radiophobia and awareness of the hot zones.  These are ultimately social issues and rather beyond the scope of this slightly evil, slightly genius plan.  

It is the opinion of this blog that we would be better off breaking our burning stuff habit before we are forced to irradiate large areas of the world to force them into fallow.  However our collective failures at long term planning and learning not to burn pickled sunlight and dehydrated marshes suggests we could use some tough love.  After all the thing about weaning is it is something done to you.  You as the weany, would be quite content to suck at the teat till it runs dry.

1 comment:

  1. No one can accuse you of not being a big picture thinker. I would love to know more about the Chernobyl region.