03/27/2011 10:44 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2011

What's a Million Years?

With a nuclear crisis ongoing it Japan, it may comfort you to know that our government has plans to keep America's nuclear waste safe for a million years.

What a relief! Good to know that, unlike in Japan, America's rulers have thought this stuff through.

Yes, the Energy Department says that it can keep all the waste from the nation's 104 nuclear power plans, plus all the waste from nuclear weapons, safely stored under Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for one million years. Within that window, they have it broken down into two parts. For the first 10,000 years, the dose limit to "the public" from the stored waste is not supposed to exceed 15 millirem per year of radiation. Then from 10,000 to a million years out, the dose to "the public" can go up to 100 millirem per year. And they have an 8,600 page plan that purports to take into account all the earthquakes, volcanic activity, and climate change that might happen the next million years.

These are hard time scales for the human mind to comprehend, so let's try out some thinking aids to help us get the whole picture. We all know that Jesus Christ is thought to have been born 2000 years ago, but that only gets us one fifth of the way to the 10,000 year mark. So how about this: the earliest human agriculture is thought to have originated about 10,000 years ago.

Now isn't that a happy thought? The Department of Energy has figured out how to keep "the public's" exposure to radiation from nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain down to 15 millirem per year for a period as far into the future as the moment humans started planting seeds in the ground is removed in the past. Hooray!

After 10,00 years, the dose for the next million years can go up to 100 millirem per year. A million years into the future is, of course, harder to imagine than a pitifully small time period like 10,000 years. Fortunately, a recent news article provides a useful tool to help visualize this.

Recent genetic evidence reveals that we nearly went extinct a million years ago, at which time there was a world population of at most 55,000 of us. Though "us" is a slippery notion here. Anatomically modern humans are thought to have first evolved originated in Africa just 200,000 years ago. This small band of our evolutionary ancestors who kept us from extinction a million years ago were our evolutionary ancestors: Homo erectus, H. ergaster and archaic H. sapiens. Scientific American has provided a nice illustration what these forebears looked like.

A million years into the future, if humans and their descendants have not gone extinct, new species will have evolved that will look at images of us with the same curiosity and amazement we feel when we look at the image above. Presumably these more highly evolved creatures will be less susceptible to health problems from radiation than we are, since the Department of Energy is planning for them to receive higher doses of radiation from our stored waste than we mere humans will have to endure. And they will no doubt be most grateful to us for having taken such precautions concerning the radiation they will be exposed to as the result of our need to make bombs, illuminate billboards, and power flatscreen TV's.

Except -- ooops. The whole Yucca Mountain plan is on hold. Not because any of the hundreds of adults who were paid high professional salaries to develop their 8,600-page million year plan had a sudden outbreak of common sense, but simply because the current Senate Majority Leader lives in Nevada and he says so. And Barack Obama needs his support so he says so too. So actually, we have nowhere to put our nuclear waste. Not for the next million years or the next five minutes.

Correction: The length of the application for Yucca Mountain was originally listed as 86,000 pages, a number taken from the NY Times and multiple other sources around the web. Thanks to commenter Blorg Blorg for pointing out the error. It is easy to think that errors such as that are peculiar to the internet, but keep in mind that before the internet, writers like myself used paper copies of sources like the New York Times, and our readers could not contact us as easily to point out mistakes. Fortunately, the number of pages in the application was a trivial part of the story, the thousands and millions of years are the point. Research always builds on other research, and mistakes are thus amplified. Yet another reason why thinking humans can make reliable million-year plans is absurd.

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