Graeme Wood


Yucca Mountain High

The word “mountain” has lovely connotations: icy streams, conifer forests, unblemished views of a snowy sierra, yodeling competitions. (OK, so not they’re not all lovely.) Alas for Yucca Mountain, these images of alpine sweetness do not apply to it at all. If Yucca Mountain had a name that conveyed just how baking-hot, barren, forlorn, and lifeless it is — perhaps “Yucca Death Vault” would do it justice — more people might see the logic in the government’s plan, now nearly thirty years old, to use it to store the nation’s radioactive garbage. The mountain is dry, geologically appropriate, and far enough from human settlements to keep it secure in case of accident or attack. Nevadans and anti-nuke activists object and say that the risk of leaks, of terrorist attacks, and of unforeseen catastrophes is too great to allow Yucca Mountain to accept the waste. But the waste has to go somewhere, and Yucca Mountain is the right spot.

The alternative, first of all, is to keep the waste at the nuclear plants that produce it. Yucca Mountain is equipped to accept 77,000 tons of radioactive waste, which are currently distributed all over the country, often in areas near population centers. Few if any of the current nuclear plants could provide the security of a mountain in the middle of the country’s most inhospitable and militarized desert.

Scientists, engineers, politicians, and lawyers have bickered for decades about whether Yucca is seismically inert enough to ensure millennia of safe storage. I don’t blame skeptics for doubting. Storage beyond the scale of individual human lives, to say nothing of human history, is tricky and bound to pose risks, such as slow bleeds of radioactive waste into the ground or water. The good news is that the worst of the waste will have decayed significantly within centuries, and the scariest parts of what’s left — plutonium, which takes 24,000 years to decay by half — can be kept out of deep storage and instead reprocessed to power more reactors (or build bombs, about which more below). Now that storage and fossil-fuel costs are skyrocketing, this sort of reprocessing will make increasing economic sense, thereby reducing the period during which Yucca Mountain would have to be certified secure.

Finally, the subject of bombs: The most ridiculous fears surround the possibility that someone would seize any stored plutonium and use it build a bomb. Let’s assume a dramatic raid of Yucca Mountain actually did occur, and somehow the folks next door at Nellis Air Force Base were powerless to stop it. The terrorists would then have loads of fission fragments, plus a large quantity of the same material used to incinerate Nagasaki. That improbable outcome would not be good, but it wouldn’t be terrible, because contrary to its reputation, plutonium is neither all that dangerous nor all that difficult to get. It’s not available, as Dr. Emmett Brown predicted over half a century ago, “in every corner drugstore,” but nuclear power plants routinely produce the stuff as a waste product, and at last count there were nuclear plants all over the world, mostly not in the U.S. The trick isn’t getting the plutonium, but turning it into a bomb. (Enriched uranium is the opposite — hard to find, easy to blow up.)

Yucca Mountain won’t avert all catastrophes — whether of the bang or the whimper variety. But it will be better than the status quo.

Originally appeared at

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , ,

Consider the Burger

A little over a century ago, the New York street food of choice was the oyster, which grew so abundantly that rich and poor alike ate them in vast quantities. That period feels distant and fantastic, partly because oysters are now a luxury food, and partly because it’s hard to imagine a national cuisine not dominated by the hamburger.

The signature American sandwich has always been an unapologetically demotic food — at least until recently — but Ozersky’s cultural history emphasizes three principal phases in our collective consumption: first, its murky origins in “hamburger steak,” first served in the U.S. but associated with immigrants from the port city of Hamburg; second, the early days of White Castle in the 1920s, when the preparation of burgers became a science and an art; and finally the postwar McDonald’s era, when a ruthless entrepreneur named Ray Kroc took the fast-food model and made it franchisable nationwide, and then worldwide.

The burger is, Ozersky notes, an irreducible food, a “gastronomic endpoint, like sashimi or a baked potato.” Yet somehow, with each phase, innovations prevailed. White Castle figured out that it could cook faster and more evenly and use griddle space more efficiently if it served square burgers, not round ones, and poked a hole in the center. McDonald’s embraced the all-Styrofoam-and-paper service area, streamlining itself into absurd profitability. And Dave Thomas, the genius behind Wendy’s, invented the drive-through window, capitalizing on the sandwich’s key virtue — its portability. You can eat a hamburger as you drive (try that with an oyster).

The Hamburger is short but comprehensive, heavy with interesting detail about the habits of American diners and restaurateurs. (It would be better if it were even leaner; the gratuitous lessons in pop sociology should be trimmed first.) One serious omission, though, is a realistic discussion of the scale of the industry it describes, which we all know is staggeringly large, but it is in fact even larger than most appreciate. The amount of beef McDonald’s alone uses in a year is so great that if the cows supplying its restaurants were all in one herd, and were being killed Blackfoot-style by stampeding them off a cliff 20 feet wide, McDonald’s gauchos would have to be rushing the herd off that cliff from dawn to dusk, every day of the year, to satisfy demand. The pop and sizzle of hamburgers conceal the frantic moos of an unfathomable number of animals, and it would be nice to have some acknowledgment of their sacrifice.

Originally appeared at

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The Bacteria Within Us

Originally published in the New York Sun.

The poet William Blake imagined what it would be like “to see the world in a grain of sand.” Reading “Microcosm” (Pantheon, 243 pages, $25.95), Carl Zimmer’s new book on the world’s most famous bacterium, one wonders whether Blake might have phrased his reverie differently if he had had an electron microscope. Had Blake looked closely enough, at a magnification that would make sand grains look like lifeless, barren mountains, the poet would have seen a remarkably complex creature, one so beguiling that it is, as Mr. Zimmer’s title suggests, easy to imagine it as a world in miniature. The bacterium, whose genome scientists mapped fully by 1997, fights viruses, just as we do; it fights its enemies, just as we do; it even has a primitive kind of sex. It is, the author argues persuasively, a model organism, and one with much to teach our own species. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Desert Moistened

The classic evidence for a wet Sahara comes from the Tassili frescoes, a series of fifty Algerian cave paintings that depict humans living with crocodiles, buffalo, giraffes, and other animals that do not thrive in arid climates. Ten thousand years ago, it appears, our ancestors could have grown rice in the Sahara, or spent their weekends Jet-Skiing at their North African lake-houses. For millennia, they had no reason to fear their water running out, or their settlements’ being reclaimed by desert sands, or of water running out. What the new reports about this bizarre climatological period don’t much emphasize, though, is that the Sahara was wet during a period of comparative global heat, and that it became parched only as the planet chilled. Read the rest of this entry »

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Gray Areas

Originally appeared in The Smart Set.

Mohammed had a squirrelly look in his eyes, which together with his green-flecked teeth made me wonder whether to trust him. We had met that morning in Jijiga, Ethiopia, and he volunteered to show me — and then devour with me — the bleak town’s one real attraction: qat bushes. Here, near the Somali border, Mohammed cultivated qat and then shipped it all over the world for Horn-of-Africa expatriates who, like him, were utterly addicted to the numbing buzz you get when you chew its leaves for a few hours. They tasted about as bitter as you’d expect a shrub to taste. We were well into our fifth hour of chewing, and the bits of leaf gave his pearlies an emerald cast — the qat equivalent of the grotesque orange teeth one gets after scarfing a whole bag of Cheetos.
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The Italian Underground


Residents of Vidracco (pop. 500) knew the newcomers were different. Since 1977, they had been showing up one-by-one in the little Piedmontese valley, marching in from Turin like bugs following a trail of syrup. They kept to themselves. Their chitchat, when it came, zoomed right past the commonplace – nothing on the latest Juventus game, or the sorry state of farming in the valley. Instead, they spoke eagerly of “esoteric physics,” astral-plane travel, and Vidracco’s remarkable “synchronic energy lines,” supposedly unique on earth. And they rarely came out at night.

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Indirect Hit

At $600,000 per Tomahawk cruise missile, the cost of whacking Ayro ran into the low millions. It would have been a bargain at twice the price. Somalis, victims of two decades of war and state breakdown, can bid farewell to a murderous madman, and their hapless provisional government will enjoy at least a slight boost in their efforts to quash the Islamist insurgency and repair the country. (Though turning Mogadishu back into a functioning city will be about as easy as turning foie gras back into a functioning goose liver.) For the U.S., however, the dividends from Ayro’s death will be more modest.

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