Crank of the Week - December 14, 2009 - Sandra Upson

Maybe it was just supposed to justify a boondoggle trip to Finland or her actual tree-hugger tendencies coming to the fore, but in this month's IEEE Spectrum magazine, Associate Editor Sandra Upson turned a report on the world's only working nuclear waste repository project into an eco-rant that any Greenpeace member would be proud of. Visiting Finland's Olkiluoto Island, where the industrious Finns are quietly taking care of their nuclear future, Ms Upson transformed what should have been an uplifting example of what serious minded engineers can accomplish when government makes a decision and then gets out of the way, into a distopian hit piece.

The article starts out as one would expect for an piece in Spectrum, the official magazine of the IEEE—a respected society of professional engineers—lots of technical details about how precisely engineered the process of welding the massive copper casks of waste will be and all of the intricate precautions that are designed into the storage facility. In America, nuclear waste disposal has been a political football for decades which finally ended with the selection of the Yucca Mountain site, in Nevada. The Obama administration has since canceled the Yucca Mountain project after wasting some $9 billion of taxpayer money over the course of 20 years. America now has no plan at all.

Unlike the United States, the Finns are a serious, methodical and practical people. After realizing that the best source of energy for the 21st century would be nuclear, they decided that they would keep their nuclear power plants running at least until 2080. Knowing that this would mean something had to be done to handle the radioactive waste created by the plants, back in 1983 the Finnish parliament mandated that the country’s two nuclear power plant companies set aside funds and begin planning immediately for disposal to begin in 40 years.

Their solution is a repository, named Onkalo, which is set to open in 2010. That is about the same time Finland's fifth nuclear power plant will come on line (there is talk of building a sixth plant as well). The repository plan is impressive: waste is to be placed inside of iron containers, sealed inside of welded copper casks and then buried, surrounded by bentonite clay, under more than 1,000 ft of solid rock (Project research and development director Johanna Hansen stands between a 1-meter-wide copper canister and its iron interior in the picture on the right, taken from the article).

After doing a thorough review of the site and plans for the repository, Upson's article took a turn for the strange when the author started speculating on what effect the onset of the next ice age could have on the deeply buried repository. Despite the fact that Onkalo is carved into rock that has been geologically stable for more than 1.8 billion years the author proclaimed: “In as little as 20 000 years, Finland may enter an ice age, and advancing ice sheets kilometers thick could carve out the rock and force more water into its fractured depths. The liquid may then diffuse through the bentonite barrier, eat through the copper, and carry off still-hot radionuclides. No one can be sure.”

Did she think to consult with a geologist or two, or was the opportunity to cast aspersions on Finland's plans too enticing? At least the article quoted Michael Apted, chairman of an advisory group to Finland’s nuclear safety authority, as saying “We’re talking millions of years for water to get through clay.” Because in the next paragraph Upson totally abandons any pretense of rationality for a flight into the imagined depths of a future ecological nightmare:

In 1000, 10 000, or 100 000 years, it might not be unreasonable to think our descendants will have abandoned this toxic land for a cozier alternative, on space pods or newly colonized planets. Where once there were humans, now hermaphroditic fish and finned flamingos may slither through our poisonous landscapes. Or perhaps evolution’s charge will have delivered beings who are healthier, cuter, and more intelligent than the ones designing today’s disposal systems. Or evolution may go in the opposite direction and cockroaches will reign supreme, just as we always suspected they might.

Hermaphroditic fish? Finned flamingos? Cockroaches reigning supreme? Maybe Ms. Upson always suspected that this would happen but I doubt most people do. The question is, why end a perfectly serviceable article in an engineering magazine with such utter tripe? Here are the Finns, perhaps the only nation on the planet taking a rational scientific and engineering approach to meeting their future energy needs in an ecologically responsible way, and this twit uses an article on how they are doing it as an opportunity to slide off the deep end into the seventh level of tree-hugger hell.

IEEE should be highly embarrassed that their flagship journal printed such balderdash. At least the article should have ended on an upbeat note, right? Not a chance. Upson caps off her crackpot musings this way: “Then perhaps, as one epoch slides into the next, whoever remains will come to Onkalo to study, with great curiosity, their distant ancestors’ struggle with the dark side of Earth’s bounty.”

While the real scientists and engineers of the world are busy “struggling with the dark side,” perhaps Ms Upson should seek therapy for those frightening visions—or alternative employment. Any number of green advocacy groups would be happy to have her if this article's last few paragraphs are an indication of her mindset. Perhaps she can use this Crank of the Week as a reference.

Cranky

Just read the article and the editorial comment. I am surprised she didn't write it as a sad poem :-) I think the only major cause of concern is somebody forgetting where they put it!