David Smythe “…engineers think they can engineer their way out of any problem.”

PH: You were just saying – engineers
DS: Yes, they will argue that their structures will survive for hundreds of thousands or million years, so in a way it doesn’t matter about the geology. Now the logical conclusion of that argument is, well why are we then bothering to bury the stuff at all? Because if they can enginneer sound enough barriers, let’s just build some concrete shelters on the surface of the earth and shove it all in there – we don’t need to waste money burying it at all. But if we have doubts about it, then we’re implicitly admitting that the geology does matter. Now the two examples that I put in the consultation response document which I sent you the other day – this was about the hubris of engineers – I can give you a third example, which is what’s the longest-lasting structure that engineers have ever built, and these are the great pyramids of Giza in Egypt, which are only after all heaps of stone built in a very stable pattern (namely a pyramid) and have they lasted even 4,000 years? The answer is no, they’ve been pillaged from the inside and all the lovely white limestone cladding on the outside was pillaged hundreds or thousands of years ago, taken away for building stock. So they are the most long-lasting engineered structures ever built by humankind and they haven’t even lasted 4, 000 years. So what promise can engineers give us that they can build a structure, which is far more sophisticated, of course, than simply a pile of interlocking stones like the pyramids, what promise can they give us that they’re going to build a structure that will last a million years? And of course they can’t. A good example of this came out about two years ago. They are developing – the nuclear engineers are developing a concept, should I say the Swedish engineers have, called KBS-3 which is a Matroyshka doll set of structures, one inside the other, where you have the nuclear waste inside a copper cannister which in turn is surrounded by a layer of bentonite clay which in turn is surrounded by a steel canniester which in turn is surrounded by more bentonite clay, and this so-called ‘engineered barrier’ – in the form of big cylinders – about two or three metres high, and maybe half a metre across, they claimed – confidently – could last a million years because the copper barrier itself (the copper cylinder) wouldn’t degrade, even within one million years. So they invented this concept in about 1976. So independent research from about two years ago showed that there was a new mechanism, previously not understood, whereby copper can be etched away and dissolved away even in the absence of oxygen, in so-called anaerobic conditions. So you can see how flimsy the engineers’ arguments are – they argued for a long time that ‘yes, we have a structure that will last for a million years – namely the copper cylinder – and then along comes a piece of research, only thirty years ago, which blows the whole thing away. So even with this cylinder, it’s all back to square one.

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