August 10, 2005

· Sociology

On the way in to work I was listening to a story about the latest round of proposed radiation standards for the proposed high-level radioactive waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Because spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste lasts a terrifically long time, and because the project is so controversial, the EPA has had to come up with a standard for storing the stuff. Yesterday they announced one designed to protect public health for a million years, or, in the words of an EPA administrator “the next 25,000 generations of Americans.”

I’m not an expert on any of this, but it seems that the inescapable fact about this sort of policy document is that the premise is wholly absurd. The sociologist Lee Clarke has argued that plans of this sort, designed to cope with huge disasters or accidents, are fundamentally rhetorical “fantasy documents” that have no prospect of working but which are produced as ritual symbols of social order and control. It’s bad enough when the disasters in question are things like a large-scale terrorist attack or a big oil spill. But a million years is about two hundred times longer than the whole of recorded human history, and the idea that we can design something built to work over that time-span is just ridiculous. Even the short-range standard proposed by the EPA covers a period of ten thousand years. At the same time, both the political fight and the nuclear waste are real, so you have to do something. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” to coin a phrase.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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