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How papyrus can safeguard nuclear waste

Clue: it isn't being used as wrapping paper

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The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) has begun an £8bn project to dismantle 26 atomic reactors that had been used for research, and will bury the waste in concrete bunkers. The project managers have come up with an interesting way of making sure information about how to handle the waste is left for future generations.

You certainly can't bury tons of plutonium and uranium without at least leaving a note for future generations saying "Don't touch. This is dangerous stuff. Really, we mean it". So what do you do?

Computer technology is notorious for being superceded rather quickly. Over the millennia that the waste will need to be stored, it is reasonable to assume that the software and hardware used to store any supporting documentation will be out of date.

In the light of this, the UKAEA decided to ditch all the high tech solutions and go for something that has a genuinely proven track record: Papyrus. Or, the closest thing we've got that doesn't involve actual reeds: so-called permanent paper. After all, if it worked for the Ancient Egyptians, it should work for us.

Normal paper will not do for long-term storage. Its high acid content means it will quickly break down and decompose. No such problems with permanent paper. Like papyrus, it is acid free, so won't discolour, or rot over the years.

The documents - 423 in all, printed on 11,718 sheets of paper - will be kept in special copper-impregnated bags, and packed in long-life archive boxes. The idea is to keep conditions as close to those in an Ancient Egyptian tomb as possible.

When dealing with quantities of nuclear waste, it make sense to plan for the long haul. For example, Cumbria's Windscale/Sellafield facility will be completely decommissioned next year, and its intermediate level radioactive waste has been sealed in concrete boxes for storage on site, until someone comes up with a better idea.

Three sets of the documents have been prepared, and will be stored separately.

Inspired by the efforts of the UKAEA to preserve knowledge for future generations, the management at El Reg has decided that our stories should be similarly maintained. Pass the stylus, we haven't got all day... ®

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